Humans don’t sing like tea kettles

I had the privilege of working with two new students this week. I always ask a new student a series of questions so I can understand his/her/their vocal journey. My closing question is usually, “What is something you wish you could do with your voice that you can’t do today?” As I expected, both students mentioned singing better high notes.

Unlocking the upper voice is a common request. So common that it makes me wonder why it plagues most singers. With so many feeling thwarted, I think it’s time to ask some fundamental questions. Firstly, if successfully singing higher on a regular basis appears so “out of reach,” is it a reasonable, i.e., doable, goal? Secondly, if it is deemed doable but success is elusive, is the approach wrong?

Inflection, the ability to vary pitch, is a basic characteristic of the human voice. This change in intonation for expressive purposes is achieved as the length and tension of the true vocal folds change. The shorter the folds, the lower the pitch, and vice versa. As a guide, just visualize the strings inside a piano or on a guitar. The voice’s ability to inflect is so natural that we take it for granted.

So, pitch raising and lowering is doable because it is in the design of the vocal mechanism. Then what makes singing higher, as opposed to lower, so much harder? I would contend that the average student struggles with higher notes because the approach is wrong—because there is a misunderstanding of the mechanics at play. Understanding how pitch is varied in the voice, as described above, is the first step to success.

In addition, I find students often fall prey to unhelpful, and potentially unhealthy, comparisons between phonation and everyday life. To illustrate this, I want you to imagine filling a tea kettle with water and placing it on the stove. If you want your cup of tea, that kettle must sing. As the water begins to boil, you hear the pitch of the whistle rise. As you remove the kettle from the stove, you hear the whistle pitch quickly slide downward. From this everyday event, it would be easy to determine that higher pitch requires higher pressure. But humans don’t sing like tea kettles.

Overexertion, whether by overblowing or pressurizing the breath, or by pressing or pushing at the vocal fold level, has been tried, with little or no success, as a way to access and secure the upper voice. Consider also that if any success is achieved, it handicaps the singer as access to higher notes comes with a high dynamic level. This approach promotes limitations, not possibilities.

So, it is reasonable for singers to desire a reliable upper voice. Accessing it is made easier with good mechanics and a correct approach. Yes, there are challenges but nothing that cannot be met with knowledge and practice. If you would like help with your upper voice, please contact me.

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