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The vocal break is the dreaded part of the voice that keeps voice teachers in business.
The break is the number issue most singers deal with.
If you hit this area too hard you jam up, not hard enough and you fall apart.
Why does this happen and what to do about it?
In this episode, John dives deeper into this most tricky vocal area and gives you some quick tips and tricks to develop the necessary coordinations.
Episode 33 – Fixing Your Vocal Break
Hey, this s John Henny. Welcome back to the Intelligent Vocalist.
You know, in the last episode, I went into a concentrated mindset –a mindset for learning to sing. And what really got me thinking that way was a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport. I probably mentioned it in the last episode but I’m going to mention it again because I’m actually rereading it. This book is me rather profound because it’s really teaching me to allow my brain to be bored. And I want to encourage all of you, whether you’re a singer or a teacher – practice being bored.
This is my new thing. I will stand in line at a grocery store and I won’t look at my phone. If I’m eating somewhere and I’m waiting for my food, I don’t check my phone. I actually just take in the atmosphere. I look at my surroundings, I talk to people around me. Wow, what a concept.
The bringing out of your phone, in any circumstance, in laying it on the table, is sending a signal to the person or the person you’re with that you don’t truly care, that’s there’s always something better, and that you need to keep checking on what might be more interesting in the moment. And I’ve been certainly guilty of that.
The reason I’m bringing this up is because I’m beginning to find, as I allow myself this boredom, I’m able to concentrate better, and I’m able to look at materials for singing, for business, and things that I’m passionate about, and I’m able to focus and concentrate better. My understanding is deepening. So hopefully, I’m going to have some great information in future episodes as my non-spastic brain begins to focus more deeply and I’m able to get more knowledge and material to pass along. I really enjoy doing this. I know my schedule is kind of in and out. I have a lot of things going on. I’ve been working on something that I shared with a little bit, going through a whole lot of weight loss. Actually I gained a role for a film part that ended up not filming. But now I’m trying to get this weight off. I’m almost done with it. I will talk more about that in a future podcast, and certainly the pros and cons that extensive rapid weight loss has had with my voice. But, yes, that’s kind of been a little bit of a preoccupation, and so I haven’t been cranking up the podcast as quickly as I would like. But I’m nearing the end of that whole process and should be back on a more regular schedule.
Now, this was sent in by a listener by the name of Zack. He was interested in how to fix his vocal break. In past podcast, I’ve touched on this subject in number of different ways – why your voice cracks, understanding vocal acoustics, what is mix – all of these things. But I’ll go ahead and just focus right on this one key area because this is what keeps voice teachers in business, is this vocal transition.
You know, we really only have one string, if you will – our vocal folds. They’re either short and fat for the low notes, and then they get longer and thinner for the high notes. Now as I’ve said before, if you look at a stringed instrument, the vocal folds don’t exactly correspond to the stringed instrument. Because on the guitar or the piano, let’s get the piano because it’s a little easier visualize. The low notes are fat and long, and the high notes are short and thin – those strings are much shorter and thinner. On the guitar, when you play a low note, you pay a longer length of the string. You allow that to vibrate and you also go to a thicker string. On the very top note, you go to a thinner string. And you also fret the string so it has a shorter vibrating length.
The vocal folds, they do two of the things that adjust pitch. Pitch is adjusted by tension, length and thickness. The vocal folds at tension, as does the piano and guitar – they get thinner, as does the piano and guitar. But they also get longer, which they do not. Because the voice is so unique and it’s a human tissue, the ligament of the vocal folds where we get the name vocal cords, that ligament doesn’t need very much tension in order to raise pitch.
So, when the vocal folds go to a high note and they go longer, yes, that added length should give you a lower pitch. But the added tension at the ligament as well as the cords thinning, will give you the higher pitch. Now, there is discussion of the cords not vibrating along, and their entire length had the extreme high pitches as well. And that also would also be more keen into a guitar fretting.
Now, there used to be an idea floating around that the cords would zip up, especially in this very first transition. We don’t have the muscles to do that. Also, that’s too low for that phenomenon of kicking in of the cords not vibrating along their entire length. Is it a phenomena? I think it’s phenomena. And then there’s phenomenon.
Anyway, getting back to this idea, because now I’ve completely scrambled my brain, which is actually not what you’re supposed to do with Deep Work. You’re not supposed to be distracted because it takes a while to go back, as I’m demonstrating right now. I’m now rambling and off-topic. So I’m going to now bring my brain back to topic.
Here we come.. we’re approaching.. here we come.. okay we’re back!
So, we have the vocal folds making these adjustments. Your vocal break occurs because of two primary events that happen. The first one is, the vocal folds going from short and fat to longer and thinner. When they do that, the dominant muscle changes in terms of which muscle is adding more of the tension. You have two pairs of muscles that are primarily involved with pitch. Those are the muscles of the vocal fold themselves – the thyroarytenoids, often called the T.A. TA-TA-TA. Just remember that, for the muscles in your vocal fold. Then you have the C.T. the cricothyroid –those are the ones that stretch and pull. Those are actually not part of your vocal folds but they pull the vocal folds longer and thinner.
When you are in a low note, the T.A. – the muscle of the folds – is going to dominate. As you begin to go higher, the C.T. muscle becomes more involved, and then they began to dominate. When you have an imbalance of those two pairs of muscles –because they need to be in really good opposition to each other, like this nice healthy, pulling against each other – when one dominates the other, you’re going to have vocal fold imbalance. When the T.A. or the muscles of the vocal folds are over-engaged for the pitch you’re trying to get, you’re going to jam up, you’re going to squeeze, you’re going to be flat. When the C.T, the stretching muscles, when those are too dominant for the pitch you’re trying to get, you’re going to go weak, and the cords are going to be too thin. So you need to train those. A lot of vocal training is getting those in healthy opposition to each other.
The other thing that occurs is acoustic. Now, this gets very very deep into this whole thing of performance and harmonics. I actually have a course on that called The New Science of Singing. So, being distracted in segue-waying into quick commercial, you can go to my website johnhenny.com click on the products link. You will find the New Science of Singing. Or you can go right to products.johnhenny.com, the New Science of Singing should be there. If you have questions on it, just email me [email protected].
Getting back to this idea now, the acoustic switch – I’m going to way oversimplify this, but for our purposes this will be fine. If you’re a voice researcher, I apologize in advance. But the primary resonator of your lower notes is your throat. The primary resonator of your higher notes, if you’re a male tenor or a female who’s belting, is going to be more associated with the mouth. these two resonators are separated by the back of the tongue. Okay? The way that you control the hand-off of this resonance – you know, the sound waves is always passing through both of these in your lower voice or your chest voice, whatever you want to call that register – the throat resonator is going to be more dominant. When you cross over, your mouth resonator, if you want to call that head voice (classical female head voice is a little different. I’m going to leave that off the table for right now. My specialty is more contemporary. I’m going to speak to that. There are much better teachers of classical voice than I), that handover to the mouth; now you have your second formant. Formant is just a way to describe the acoustic properties of the space – the space of the throat and the space of the mouth.
When we change the size and shape of these resonators, we’re changing the formant value. In other words, we’re changing what frequencies are going to be boosted in that space. A frequency just refers to how quickly a sound wave is vibrating. And even digging a little deeper, sound wave is made up of lots of little parts. You actually have these multiple little sound waves going on at the same time. We hear the lower grouping (and ’m going to correct myself in the previous podcast because Ian Howle has shown me the error of my ways in looking at his materials), I would say that the lowest part of the sound wave, or harmonic as they call it, gives us the pitch.
(That’s actually not entirely true. It’s the first grouping. I believe the first grouping – I think about the first five or six, I could be getting this wrong. I got to go read that again, maybe I was distracted.)
Those all fold into what we sense is pitch. As a matter of fact, we can remove the very first one, and we still hear the pitch. It’s actually kind of interesting. And if we isolate the first one, it actually kind of sounds like a hollow sound wave. I mean, it is a pitch but we don’t totally identify the pitch is that.
Then the upper ones starts to go into color, whether it’s bright or dark. And even beyond that, they start to create a sense of noise. Even that hits the ear in such a way in the way we fold everything together becomes the pitch. This is all quite fascinating and quite beyond the scope of this podcast. But if you really want to delve in to this, Ian Howle’s stuff is brilliant.
So we have to hand over from this throat resonator to this mouth resonator. So, there’s two events; we have the physical of the handover of the muscle, and we have acoustic of the handover of the resonators. You can work one or the other to a degree, or both. I find both working best, especially for less advanced singers. Okay? Now, you can get through your transition by really fine-tuning the muscles of the vocal folds without really messing too much with the acoustic handover. And that will extend the range of your acoustic setup, if you will. And that is really good for certain vocal effects, for really getting a wide, bright belt.
It is now without danger though. There are singers that you see will attempt it and they hit it on the recording. But they won’t necessarily hit it in every performance. And that’s usually great crash and burn – is when a singer attempting to hit a high note without making acoustic adjustments at the same time. I used to believe that not making adjustment was absolutely wrong, was terrible for the voice, was unhealthy. I no longer believe that. I’ve seen singers do it very very well. But what I’m going to talk about here is actually making both the muscular and the acoustic adjustments, because that’s going to make it easier for you.
Now, I’m just going to give you a few guidelines now that you understand what it is that you have to do. The reason why we crack is either we’re not in muscular balance, or we’re not in acoustic balance. The biggest one that you see, the one that I will often call pulled chest, which I’m criticized for online which kind of cracks me up. That’s cool if you find that same pulled chest is the per view of hacked teachers. But be that as it may, you can call it a register violation, whatever it is that you want to call. The number one thing that you hear singers do that gets singers in trouble, that limits singers’ range, that causes a lot of vocal damage, is a two-fold event of too much T.A. muscle. Okay? So, you’re starting to squeeze, or your vocal cords are a little too thick, or you’re starting to jam air to get it to pitch and to make it work, combined with a register issue of holding on to that throat resonator a little too far, which make the larynx have to rise up so the throat resonator gets smaller, in order to follow the pitch. That’s kind of the one-two punch that where you hear singers, you know, they’re just yelling, screaming, eyes bulging out, the veins on the either side of their neck, the chin is up, the mouth is super wide. They all make the same face.
Now then, you get singers that realized, “that’s not a good idea.” But they don’t make the adjustments of the acoustics. They will over-adjust at the vocal folds. And what they do is, they end up just flipping. So that there’s still in that throat resonator, but now the throat resonator is working a different part of the sound wave. A part of the sound wave that’s actually lower, that doesn’t vibrate very quickly, and they get flipped to that falsetto. The vocal cords are over-released, the acoustics dropped too much and stays in throat resonator. You get the flip. So they’re either yelling or flipping, yelling or flipping. This is the classic definition of the vocal break. “My voice breaks. I hit a wall, and then it has to flip.”
So, how do you fix this? Bottom line is, you have to do a lot of work. You have to learn to balance this. And preferably with a very very good teacher, because what you’re paying for with a good teacher is their ears. They’re listening to you and correcting you in real times so that you’re not getting stuck in this break.
But if you want to do it on your own, a couple of things that I suggest; Take whatever vocal scale you like. Or you know what, you can even just do slides. Start in your lower register. Don’t use too much volume initially because those T.A. muscles, the muscles inside the folds, will instantly engage. Listen, muscle either likes to be all the way on or all the way off. When somebody’s learning to do something, play tennis. Hit a golf ball. Hit a baseball. Any of these things that require physical skill, almost always, they over-muscle, and that’s what we tend to do in voice. We either over or under-muscle what needs to go on.
So go ahead. Start in your lower register, not too much volume, and then the vowel. I’ve talked about the vowels, I’ve talked about the acoustics. You’re going to use vowels to control this acoustic handover. Basically, the vowels that don’t like to hand over tend to be wide, like AHH and EHH. The vowels that do like to hand over are more, what we might call closed vowels, like OHH and UHH.
So if you just glide on UHH vowels, don’t worry about vibrato, don’t worry about anything. Just over that fifth, you know – if you know how to play piano at all, just give yourself a starting note, make it comfortable. You will feel yourself approach the break. As you approach the break, take it easy. If you’re either going to squeeze and go into that pull-type of feeling, or that register violation, or flip, choose to flip. Allow yourself to flip for a little while. It’s easier to begin to add the muscle in. Now, if you’re with a very good teacher, they may bring you in with a little more intensity and find your way from there. But when you’re working on your own, I don’t recommend that. That’s harder to do on your own.
The other thing that I’d like to do is use the sound BUHH as in (BOOK). If you’re listening to this in a country other than the US – actually we have regional accents, so the word itself is not important. It is the sound. The reason I say (BOOK) is, in my accent, that UHH sound is part of the word. Some languages don’t have this UHH. Learn to make this sound because what it is, is a very very nice neutral vowel sound that will get you in. Now, the reason I put the B is, if you put your finger on your larynx, the Adam’s apple in a guy, and you say BUHH, you’re going to make the B, and you feel it drop.
This is really good because learning to control laryngeal height is part of learning to be very good at controlling this break. It’s not that the larynx can’t move, but we don’t want it moving uncontrollably. It’s tendency is to want to go up, it’s to want to want to grab, it’s to want to yell. So we’re going to keep that in that neutral UHH position with the B. The B will tend to drop it down, and you can just BUHH. That BUHH will get you into your break, usually in a good healthy manner.
Again, not too much volume. Watch out for BUHH, BUHH, BAHH (getting higher) – you’re body’s going to want to change that vowel. You just need to focus on not letting that BUHH change. Work that up into the transition back down. For men, you’re going to feel, depending on your voice type, you may feel a transition event around about Middle C, maybe a little bit before. You’re certainly be into it by the E Flat above middle C.
For females, you may feel it beginning on the F or G above middle C. You’re certainly in it by that A Flat, into that B Flat. Girls, if you need to flip on the B above Middle C, that’s fine, even sooner.
Men, you may feel the need to flip on that F Sharp above Middle C. There’s some acoustic things going on there.
But just doing those glides, doing that BUHH, take it easy. Don’t rush this. You can’t rush this. If you rush this, you are likely going to cease up. And you’re going to be back into that either yelling or flipping, yelling or flipping. So just work these two little exercises for a while before you go do your other things. Warm up a little bit. Try these, you know. Try them for five to ten minutes, couple of times a day. See if that doesn’t start helping you through that break.
Now, when we get to language and a song, that’s a little different. However, if you go back to, I believe it’s my first podcast The Greatest Secrets of Singing, I gave you a tip in there. Go back and listen to it, about what to do with language. And essentially, it’s going to tie into what we are talking about right here. It all ties together. Working these vowels, being able to control how you form these vowels, which controls your acoustics, which controls so much of the voice. Actually, when you have the right acoustics, it also helps you control the muscles as well.
Hey, I so appreciate you taking the time to listen. I do have new a podcast hat I have started up called Studio Marketing Secrets. Go ahead and look for that on iTunes. Please register for that one as well, if you happen to be a voice teacher or any type of music teacher. If you’re thinking about teaching voice as a really good way to start building your business, I give some really good tips in there.
And again, you can email me at [email protected]. My website is johnhenny.com.
And until next time. To better singing! Thank you so much. Bye.