In this Intelligent Vocalist podcast episode, John Henny talks about the issues that might be limiting every vocalist's singing range. He shared his own list that he created based on his own observations and experiences.
Moreover, he discussed the proper vocal techniques to address and deal with these dilemmas and help you achieve a multiple octave range. Tune in and hang on tight as we comprehensively go over this exciting topic.
To learn more about John Henny, his best-selling books, online courses, Vocal Assessments, and Voice Lessons with his Teaching Team of Experts, Speaker Training, and the Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy, visit: JohnHenny.com
Ten Issues that Limit Your Vocal Range
A lot of singers and professional voice users are well-aware that there is a wide range of reasons why their vocals seem restricted, thus limiting their overall singing range. The causes and adjustments needed to achieve greater range can certainly vary from individual singer to singer because the human singing voice is unique to each person.
But according to John, the situations included in this outline are the most common reasons that can prevent your voice from reaching a wider range.
#1: Imbalanced Vocal Folds
The first issue that causes your voice to have a limited range is either having too much or too little compression at the vocal folds.
As you go to sing a high note, if there is too much compression squeezing the vocal folds together, the cords become too thick and cannot stretch up to the higher range of pitches you are trying to hit. On the other hand, if there is not enough compression, the quality of sound will be light, breathy, and weak.
It will be common to swing between these two extremes until you can find that balance in your vocal folds. However, John recommends starting lighter because over-muscling is a more difficult habit to undo.
Here are some tips John gives us to navigate this balance:
Start with a lighter voice with less compression.
Gradually increase compression to avoid over-muscling.
With a hum, imagine you are eating your favorite food. That "Mmm" sound should be right in the middle between a squeezed sound and a breathy sound.
John also advises to not get stuck in an overly light coordination. Don't be afraid to take a risk, and make an effort to extend the balance from your current range to a broader range.
#2: Not Mixing
There is debate regarding the term "mixed voice." It has also been called the middle register, middle voice, or passaggio. According to John, it is a vocal registration that creates a pathway from your lower register (also called "chest register" or "chest voice") to your upper register (also called "head register" or "head voice") that is smooth, and doesn't fall apart or break.
The struggle here comes from the hand-off of not only which muscles within the vocal folds are dominant, where the short and thick vocal folds for a low note are stretched and thinned for a higher note, but also the hand-off from a lower acoustic resonance to a higher one.
This handover is inherently unstable. The nervous system will try to take over and "help" by squeezing and pushing, leading to a shout, especially with heavier voices. To prevent this, John recommends allowing a bit of a vocal break into a lighter voice to help find release from this over-muscling as you navigate between these lower and upper vocal registers.
John demonstrates a vocal exercise on an octave scale that shows the transition from the lowest note to the highest note of the scale pattern. Once you find that you can approach the top note without squeezing, you can start to put more energy into it to achieve a more balanced sound in this mixed voice.
#3: Vowels, Vowels, & Vowels
John tells us that finding balance in your mixed voice really comes down to how well you can control your resonance, and the key to controlling resonance is vowel modification.
As John mentioned in the previous issue regarding mixing, the nervous system will try to "help" by squeezing and shouting because that is what the human voice is good at. This shouting drives our vowels to be overly wide and risks vocal damage, so to compensate, we will have to over-narrow those vowels to relieve that muscular tension.
However, he warns that the tendency is to get stuck in those overly narrow vowel shapes because they work. Those narrow vowels will enable you to reach a higher range of pitches, and you won't hear a shift in vocal registers, but the sound won't be satisfying because of the lack of energy and power.
Range is not just about reaching it note; it's being able to reach the note within the definition of the style of the song. For instance, the typical male voice type singing middle C or higher will be very different in choral music, classical music or operatic music versus in contemporary styles.
If you need to sing a nice robust note but use a vowel that is overly narrow, you're robbing the note of upper acoustic energy. John warns that if that is the case, there's a chance that you will end up squeezing in an attempt to achieve the volume and power you desire.
The recommended approach to working this issue out is to start with narrower vowels, but don't get stuck there as the vowels will eventually need to open up a bit more for acoustic energy and better vocal tone.
#4: Wrong Position of the Larynx
The position of the larynx (or voice box) is a significant factor affecting one's vocal timbre and average range. With this in mind, the main question of singers is, "How high or low should my larynx be to reach the typical range?"
John has a definite answer to this: "Your larynx should be neither high nor low, but tuned. It should be tuned in to the note you are singing, to the vowel, and to the intensity." Certain vowels will have a higher larynx position than others, so you can also control your larynx position by controlling your vowels.
The common misconception is that the larynx should ideally be completely stable. John explains that is not the case. The larynx needs to be able to move depending on what you are doing and the sound you are trying to produce, but that movement needs to be in your control.
This is an issue that John has seen from untrained singers all the way to professional singers. Singers will tend to push and heighten their larynx, usually accompanied by a wide vowel, which promotes shouting. This will easily make a singer feel like they have a limited range.
Singers can counteract this by working with an overly low larynx, which again, should only be a temporary adjustment. John constantly reminds his students, listeners, and readers to avoid getting stuck with these over-correcting singing techniques. Overly lowering the larynx lengthens the vocal tract, and that is not conducive to higher notes as it doesn't reinforce the higher frequencies needed for a higher note.
However, if the larynx is jamming up in order to reach for those higher frequencies, that will lead to shouting rather than healthy singing. Working with a lower larynx to start will help to calm the nervous system down as you start to navigate through these transitions until you can open up with more success and with a greater comfortable range and better tone quality.
#5: Not Creating Flow Phonation
Breath support is a common topic, but John takes us a bit deeper as we consider the breath for singing and how this breath flow affects our pitch ranges. There needs to be controlled energy in our air, and this energized air flow creates what John calls flow phonation.
Flow phonation is the term used to describe a situation where there is a balance of vocal fold closure, air resistance, and breath flow. Singers are not using so much air that their vocal folds are either being blown apart or having to clamp down to resist the rush of air, but also that they are not starving their vocal folds of air that they have to over-compress to create a sound wave.
Suppose you're one of the many singers who struggle with achieving the correct breath for singing, preventing you from reaching the ideal tonal quality. In that case, John has videos posted on YouTube and podcast episodes that discuss more about breathing to help you counteract the negative outcomes of this problem and reach a balanced flow phonation.
Go to johnhenny.com, or John Henny Vocal Studio on YouTube, and type in "breathing" and "support" in the search bar to see a rundown of tutorials about the proper singing techniques regarding airflow.
#6 & 7: The Tongue and Throat are Too Relaxed
If you have not already listened to The Intelligent Vocalist episode "The Role of the Tongue and Twanging with Kerrie Obert," make sure you go check that out as it will give you greater insights into this issue with the tongue and throat being too relaxed.
Even though the tongue and the throat are two separate components, John talks about them together because they are very closely related. Another common misconception is that it is ideal to sing with a completely relaxed tongue and open throat, but that will actually disable a singer from getting the sound and power that they want in their upper range.
Vocal pedagogues revealed that when the tongue and throat are too relaxed, boosting your upper notes can be a struggle. Within one's vocal tract, there are areas in the upper throat where we want to create these narrowings and constrictions, especially for higher notes. The hump of the tongue and the back of the tongue are essential to creating these necessary constrictions in the upper throat.
When John talks about constrictions, he doesn't mean to jam up or squeeze or engage too much tongue tension. These are healthy and energized constrictions that occur in the vocal tract so that higher notes are acoustically boosted.
You will notice if you try to belt a high note with a completely open throat, a low larynx and a tongue that's just hanging back, there is no acoustic energy to back up the note. Once you energize the tongue, and make the proper constrictions in the throat, you'll find that the sound of that upper note is balanced and boosted.
#8: Lack of Confidence
When you go for a note, you have to believe that you're going to make it.
John has worked with so many good singers that started off with the struggles listed above. They started off yelling with a high larynx and wide vowels, and so went through the corrections to narrow the vowels, drop the larynx, use less air, and very carefully gained better balance in their upper notes.
However, as John has warned us several times, those extreme corrections should only be temporary. Too often, singers become too afraid of making those old mistakes. They second guess themselves, and discount all of the work that they put into increasing their vocal ranges and finding greater balance in their upper register. Their body responds to that lack of confidence by dropping the air support and releasing the good tension they should have in the tongue and throat.
They may successfully hit the correct pitch without hurting themselves, but the sound is unsatisfying because they don't have the confidence to support the skills they have cultivated.
#9: Not Mentally Conceiving the Note
A way to help build confidence is to mentally conceive the note before singing it. If you don't know what you want to do with a note, it's difficult to be confident about it.
John strongly recommends doing silent practice. This is where where you physically do everything you would to sing as you "mentally" make a sound. You would get your mouth, vowel, tongue, throat, and support set as if to sing, but only "mentally" sing the note, and "sing" it strong. You need to make it as vivid as possible, and create the sensations as if you were really singing the note aloud.
This practice can also be done even when you're not feeling better. Silent practice must be your go-to solution when your voice and body are tired to preserve your vocal health.
The benefit of this practice reveals itself when you go to actually sing the note, because you will already be mentally there. When you have created the note in your mind, your body will follow. There will be no second guessing because you have already prepared yourself with the proper techniques to hit the note the way you want to.
#10: Working Without a Teacher
There is some glamorization and glorification of being self-taught and not having any formal training. However, this is not the ideal mindset to have when it comes to singing. Yes, you can try to do it all by yourself, but in the long run, you'll notice that there's only so far you can take yourself before hitting a vocal range ceiling and encountering other vocal struggles.
A great teacher can make a huge difference in your music education and vocal health, and there are a lot of great music teachers out there with a wealth of information. No matter what type of voice you have, you can benefit from a teacher giving you tailored vocal range exercises and guiding you toward singing success.
Every vocal teacher has unique knowledge, strengths, and abilities. One teacher may specialize in modal registers or vocal agility. Another may help you better access your vocal fry register and falsetto register. Another still may be great for opera singers. As a student, be open to learning from a variety of vocal teachers. Encourage yourselves to study and focus on the issues that may be restricting you from all the octaves of range you might actually have available to you.
John wants to end this discussion by reminding everybody, especially singers, to concentrate on improving their vocal health to reach the desired upper range and bring out the potential in your voice by:
1. Balancing your vocal folds.
2. Finding your mixed voice.
3. Adjusting your vowels.
4. Positioning your larynx.
5. Achieving support through flow phonation.
6. Engaging your tongue.
7. Energizing your throat.
8. Being confident.
9. Focusing on mental conception.
10. Working with a professional voice teacher.
Once you check off everything on the list, you can overcome any vocal issue that limits your vocal range.
Staying in Touch
If you want to know more about John, you can visit johnhenny.com. There you can listen to previous episodes of The Intelligent Vocalist podcast, as well as access his blog posts. Join John's mailing list to get special offers that are exclusive to his mailing list, and stay up to date on new courses and books.