Get Ready for High Notes!

So you want to hit the high notes. But you don't just want to "hit the high notes." You want to be able to sing these notes in your upper range with strength, ease, and stamina. The good news is that you can take steps to stretch and build your range, starting in your head voice and then eventually building strength and range into your mix and mix-belt. 

I would suggest starting with a good foundation by making sure you can sing in a balanced, coordinated way in your more accessible range. When you sing, ask yourself this:

  • Are you able to maintain breath support with a steady flow?
  • Are you able to sing through your current note range without yelling, breathiness, or over-muscling? 
  • Are you able to sing in your current range without getting fatigued or having a strained voice?

It is important to make sure you have "balance" with your singing in your lower range first, as when you start to reach for the higher vocal register, any issues with poor technique or bad habits will show up tenfold in your high notes. 

So a good basic understanding of vocal technique and healthy singing will set you up for success in the high notes. 


Why Are High Notes Hard?

Singing higher notes is actually not that hard for most singers when they sing in a light falsetto. Falsetto has very little cord closure and is characterized by a breathy sound, and this sound is created when the CT (cricothyroid) muscles engage in thinning and stretching the vocal cords to reach a higher pitch. Although the higher notes are being reached, singing in falsetto can have a weak sound due to its breathy quality.

A strong high note needs the CT (cricothyroid) muscles to stretch and thin the vocal cords to get to pitch, and then to get more strength and cord closure, singers' voices need to flex the TA (thyroarytenoid) muscles simultaneously, making the cords a little fatter so they have more contact at the edges. This balance of CT and TA engagement will create a more powerful sound and the ability to sing high-intensity high notes.

Powerful high notes require the balance of airflow, resistance at the vocal cords (or vocal folds), and resonance in the resonance chambers in the vocal tract.

Balancing these two sets of vocal muscles, CT and TA,  in the singing voice might sound easy on paper, but coordinating these two opposing forces for optimal vocal tract resonances can sometimes result in a sort of "tug of war" when singing.

Too much TA action can jam up the vocal folds causing yelling or vocal fatigue.

Not enough TA action and the voice can sound weak, have a wavering effect on long notes, or cause flipping.

Not only that, but we don't really "feel" or have a direct awareness of these muscles. We control them by thinking of pitch and intensity, and then the muscles adjust without our direct awareness while singing through the vocal range. So what one person might feel as a sympathetic "feeling" might be very different from what another person feels during the singing process. So voice teachers sometimes have to get creative in explaining this balance and how to reach it. But vocal exercises to develop your mixed voice and understanding vowel modifications can help you get to this balanced place in your singing.

The "Sweet Spot" of Vocal Coordination

Here is the thing: there is a "sweet spot" of balanced vocal coordination where all of a sudden, you can sing effortless, strong high notes when you get all of the elements aligned.

Good vocal coordination is accomplished by balancing the following:

  1. Air
  2. Cord 
  3. Vowel 

Let's talk about what happens when balanced vocal coordination happens; If we get the correct air support to the vocal folds and use vowels properly as we align our resonators (mainly our throat resonator and our mouth resonator) with the sound wave in an optimal way, what's going to happen is an acoustic energy boost.

We get this energy boost of acoustic energy because we have shaped our resonators so that certain parts of the sound wave become enhanced and excited. So there is more energy, and the energy flows out of your mouth toward the listener, but the energy also reflects back down towards the vocal folds and creates this back pressure that balances against the airflow coming out.

This back pressure allows the vocal folds to work more optimally with more ease, thus creating a better sound with less muscle involved. Of course, that is a very simplified explanation of the "Key to Vocal Power." 

Singing Exercises to Hit High Notes

When you are first discovering high notes, you want to go in without too much intensity, without a lot of muscle. New singers often want to sing higher and louder, but you can't have both initially. Singing louder should not really be your primary goal right off the back.

In the beginning, I would suggest finding your lower register - your chest voice (which is generally a comfortable register for most people), using a moderate, consistent sound. You will then want to build up to a stronger sound gradually.

Breath Management 

Before you start to work on your higher notes, you want to make sure you are using efficient breath support. We want to aim for breath support to feel natural and second nature, so we don't want to overthink breath support. But finding some exercises to develop breath control is helpful. There are so many great breathing exercises available, so I would encourage you to investigate to find ones that work for you. 

But here are some things to check to make sure you are breathing efficiently.  

With your body relaxed, you want to be taking air in with an expanded belly and rib cage. You want to take a deep breath, but not a forced breath, and it will be with relaxed throat muscles and a feeling of then filling your abdomen while expanding the ribs. Putting your hands on either side of your lower ribs can help you feel this process of expansion. 

If you find you are running out of air while singing, this can be because of not enough cord closure. Breathy singing will lose air quickly, and you can run out before you get to the ends of your phrases. Simple scales in your lower range using a short, almost staccato "ah ah ah" (watch that the sound is not coming out like ha, ha, ha) or the word "cake, cake cake." The consonant in "cake" and the onset of the short "ah" helps to encourage cord closure to practice controlling the air.

Practicing a long slow, sustained "ss" sound is a commonly used simple breathing exercise. The goal is to take the air "in" efficiently and then control the air as you let it out. You don't want it to be forced or to "let go" and let the air out too fast. See if, over time, you can gradually start to hold this "ss" sound for longer periods of time.

Closed Vowels

Starting in a light voice on a more closed vowel sound such as "oo" or "ee" on a siren exercise is a great place to start to stretch your range without the risk of going into a yell. You want to start with a lighter sound, and with daily singing, you will start to build more elasticity, strength, and muscle memory through your upper note range.

Work with these narrow vowels for a couple of weeks, and when these feel solid, you can gradually add more cord closure and shift the vowel to an "uh" sound. Be careful with wide vowel sounds like "ah" to begin with, as these vowel sounds can encourage a shout sound and will probably need vowel modification in your higher notes. 

But remember you cannot rush these new coordinations. Your body will want to go to what it remembers, which is usually a shout sound if you try too quickly to sing intensely in your higher range. So if you find yourself yelling or jamming up, go back to the closed vowels and lighter sounds.

Pressing In

Another good vocal exercise to feel cord closure and "pressing in," which you will need for powerful high notes,  is making an "Mmm-mmm" sound, with the second half of the "mmm" being a little louder.   Creating this vocal tone makes the cords shorter and fatter, and they work in a more engaged action. You can then add this sound or feeling to certain scales and exercises as this engagement of "pressing in" is what will eventually allow you to sing higher with a powerful voice.

Adding More Sounds

If you feel you are singing with balance with the sirens and narrow vowels, adding "Mum mum mum" or a "Guh guh guh" sound to simple scales is a good next step. But if you feel your nervous system tipping over to a "grabbing" or "jamming up" feeling as you sing higher, back off and again go back to a lighter sound and narrower vowels. You may have to go back and forth to simpler sounds and exercises to work through feelings of grabbing. 

When you can keep balance in your upper notes with the more open vowels, you will really start to get a feel for your mixed voice (link to "Develop Your Mix Quickly and Easily") with your blend of chest voice and head resonance. There are so many shades to your mixed voice, but ultimately developing this blended resonance will create ease of singing through your registers and into your higher notes. 

This is where a competent voice teacher can really help you not only with solidifying your basic techniques, but they can listen and make micro-adjustments, giving you instructions in real-time and then letting you know when you are in the correct placement. Repeating exercises and vocalization in the "correct placement' will allow you to record this feeling or action in your nervous system and then build muscle memory.

Remember to take your time, be easy on yourself as you develop this new skill, and enjoy your singing journey!

If you would like to learn more about my books, courses, and Contemporary Voicer Teacher Academy, please visit johnhenny.com. And if you are interested in online vocal lessons, you can reach out to our front desk at [email protected], and we would be happy to answer your questions.