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5 Tips for Learning to Belt

5 Tips For Learning to Belt

Belt technique is controversial in the voice world. I grew up with the belief that if I did anything other than sing in head voice that I *would* destroy my voice, and even in 2018, I meet students and voice teachers all the time who share that sentiment. The truth is, belting can be dangerous for your voice if you do it with bad technique or if you force yourself to do it when your voice isn’t in shape for it. But if you learn how to do it in a healthy way and listen to your body when your voice isn’t up for it, all will be well. For better or for worse, belting is an indispensable skill in most commercial styles of music, and there’s really no substitute. If you’re ready to take your singing to the next level, here are some important tips for learning to belt in a sustainable, healthy way.

1. Set the Foundation

Great support is absolutely crucial for healthy belting. Think of it this way. When you’re backpacking, you strap your pack on with a variety of straps to distribute the pressure around your body. That way the full force of the backpack isn’t crushing your shoulders. When you belt, you don’t want those tiny laryngeal muscles doing all the work.

Stand up straight. Your back should feel wide and long, and if someone were to try to push you over, you should be so stable that you could weather it. Your spine should be stacked vertically, and your sternocleidomastoids, that pair of muscles that extend from your chest to the base of your skull, should be at work keeping your neck in line with your torso.

When you have a stable base, everything from your breath control muscles (the diaphragm and external intercostals in particular) to the small muscles in your vocal tract can work more efficiently.

2. Use Very Little Air

One of the biggest mistakes newbie belters make is using more air than they need. When you hear a big voice, it may sound like the way to recreate it is to take a giant breath and shove all that air out at once. What this actually does though is force your vocal folds to work significantly harder. Part of the chesty sound belters achieve is created by a longer closed phase. This means that your vocal folds stay together longer during each cycle of vibration. If you use too much air, your vocal folds will have to work very hard to stay shut.

When you belt, don’t take in too much air. Use a relaxed inhalation, and then hold most of the air back when you create your sound. Keep your ribcage expanded so that your diaphragm stays in a low position instead of rising quickly and crowding your lungs. Your exhalation as you sing should be extremely slow and controlled, even more so than in classical singing.

3. Crush the Constriction

One of the biggest culprits in injuring your voice when you belt is the constriction of your false vocal folds, the muscular folds that sit above your vocal folds in your larynx. Your false vocal folds have a tendency to constrict when your body thinks it’s under duress. Constriction is triggered by a variety of things, from heavy labor to anxiety. When your false vocal folds are constricted, you’ll feel your throat get tight and close up.

To retract your false vocal folds, in other words, to open your throat, you can use a variety of visual cues. Visualize inhaling and smelling a rose; laugh silently and hold the position; or pull your ears apart. You can test whether your folds are retracted by covering your ears and breathing. When you can no longer hear your breath, your false vocal folds are retracted.

Keeping your throat open like this is by far the safest way to belt.

4. Learn to Twang

You know that hooty, woofy sound you hear when someone does a bad imitation of an opera singer? Well that ain’t gonna do it. You need a boat-load of forward resonance to make this happen. Try cackling like a witch, quacking like a duck, or saying “nya nya nya” like a bratty kid. You don’t have to be belting yet, but you should feel an extreme narrow, pointed quality to your sound. This is often called twang and is the result of your aryepiglottic sphincter (a tube above your true and false vocal folds) narrowing.

5. Don’t Be Afraid

It may seem contradictory, but the less afraid of belting you are when you do it, the healthier it’ll be. Fear causes tension and constriction, when what you want is freedom. Try fearlessly yelling, “yay!” With a lot of excitement in your voice. Not a trebly, tepid “yay!” A “yay” that someone could hear across a crowded room that’d cause them to smile. There shouldn’t be any real pushing, and it’ll quickly become clear how easy this can be if you let it.

breath control problems in singing

What Do Breath Control Problems in Singing Sound Like?

You hear all the time that to sing well you need to learn breath control. But what do breath control problems actually sound and feel like in singing? Here are 7 common vocal issues that are related to breath control.

1. Unwanted Breathiness

If you’re having a hard time getting a solid tone when you sing, it’s because you’re exhaling too quickly through your notes. In you exhale too fast, you won’t build up as much subglottal pressure (that is, pressure underneath your vocal folds), and your vocal folds will just blow open instead of getting full closure as they vibrate. This is not to say that all breathiness is bad. It’s often very useful for stylistic ends.

2. Lack of Control

If you’re experiencing control issues, like going flat a lot or missing notes even when you can usually match pitch easily, it’s very likely that your breath control could be better. Try these support exercises to make managing your air easier.

3. Weak-Sounding Voice

As with unwanted breathiness, having a weak voice is often directly related to breath control. Breath is one of the main power sources behind the voice, and without enough subglottal pressure built up, your voice will most likely sound fairly weak.

4. Limited Vocal Range or Weak Head Voice

If your range caps out early on or gets weaker and weaker, you might not be getting the breath support to make it to those higher frequencies.

5. Sounding Shouty

It may sound like the total opposite of everything else we’ve discussed, but shoutiness can also be a breath control issue. Your power source should come from holding back air, not from forcing a bunch of air out of your lungs. Not only is that not good for your vocal folds, but you probably won’t get the tone you’re hoping for.

6. Extreme Register Breaks

This is an offshoot of some of the other ones we’ve discussed. Extreme register breaks often happen when people are pushing out too much air in their lower range, hit a wall, and then break into a breathy falsetto when they can’t tense their thyroarytenoid muscle (the muscle in your larynx responsible for shortening your vocal folds) any longer.

7. Vibrato Problems

If you’re experiencing a machine gun vibrato, a slow wobbly vibrato, an uneven vibrato, or an unwanted lack of vibrato, you’re likely also experiencing breath control problems. If you aren’t supporting well, you might find yourself with a vocal wobble. The lack of support may also result in some unwanted tension that can also lead to an overly fast vibrato. If you aren’t letting air out at a consistent rate, you may find yourself with an uneven vibrato. An even vibrato is the combination of a number factors falling into place, including a particular balance of breath support, freedom in your throat (retraction of your false vocal folds, to be precise), and a tilted thyroid cartilage.

Knowing vocal issues that are caused by breath control is just the first step. To begin to learn breath control, check out this post on how to find your support muscles.

Hard Songs to Sing: "There's Nothing Holding Me Back," by Shawn Mendes

Hard Songs to Sing: There’s Nothing Holding Me Back, by Shawn Mendes

Shawn Mendes live in concert by Josiah VanDien under cc by-sa-4.0

I don’t often spend that much time talking or writing about where to breathe in a song, because frankly, in most cases I think it’s pretty obvious and just a place for voice teachers to hang their hat. Typically, if you breathe at the ends of phrases, the same way you would when speaking, everything works out fine. In the case of Shawn Mendes’s “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back,” not so much. I added it to our Hard Songs collection, not because of the extreme high notes, but because it requires some thoughtfulness if you don’t want to find yourself gasping for air.

Why Is This Song Hard to Sing?

Try singing along with the bridge, starting at 2.39 and see what happens. If you easily made it through, congratulations! You’re ahead of the game. If, like me, you went through it for the first time and found yourself running out of air, then you might need some help laying out a map of where to breathe.

Instant Gratification

This song will instantly feel more manageable if you take a look at the lyrics and space out where you have room to grab some air.

Try taking breaths at the parts I add slashes to. To make it a little more readable, I also eliminated the commas to keep you from wanting to breathe there.

‘Cause if we lost our minds and we took it way too far
I know we’d be alright I know we/would be alright
If you were by my side and we stumbled in the dark
I know we’d be alright I know we/would be alright
‘Cause if we lost our minds and we took it way too far
I know we’d be alright I know we/would be alright
If you were by my side and we stumbled in the dark
I know we’d/be alright I know we would be alright

If after singing through it with those breaths you still think that the phrases are long af (they are! they really are!) hop on over to our next section about words to watch out for.

Because It’s All About that Breath

Improving your overall breath control is definitely the way to go as you progress vocally, but to make things easier fast, watch out for the parts that drain air the quickest. It’s very easy to deflate on the word lost because it’s an open vowel and is sustained. Try holding back air (you can even pretend that you’re inhaling) and sing “la la la.” Now sing lost, but hold back the air in the same way.

When you get to took, try the same thing on “teuh teuh teuh.” Watch out for releasing air there. You can also soften the “t” to more of a “d” for some additional help.

When you get to stumbled, I don’t usually say this, but you might try getting off the vowel faster and heading straight for that “m.” You can get away with this in contemporary music more than you can in, say, opera or legit musical theatre. It’s pretty easy to hold back air on the “mmm” if you’re paying attention.

If after making these changes, the song still feels like an uphill battle, let’s head over to the long-term goals section.

Long-Term Goals

The best case scenario here isn’t just to figure out breath control on “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back,” but on all songs. It’ll not only make it easier for you to get through tough passages, but it’ll make your tone better in general. Try these exercises for better breath support, all the while maintaining great posture (straight spine, broad shoulders) and keeping an open ribcage as you sing. Put your hand on that soft spot below your sternum to make sure your muscles are working. Then try these vocal exercises.

Humming Exercises.

Try humming and keeping a buzzy forward resonance. If it feels like you’re deflating, try visualizing holding your breath, or even inhaling instead of exhaling.

Hum to Ah

Next, move between a hum and an “ah,” keeping the same forward buzz for the ah that you did on the hum.

Pro Tip

If you’re having a hard time keeping the breath in, try sitting against a wall, pretending you’re in a chair. Your core will engage, and breath control should feel easier.

Have a suggestion for a hard song to sing? Add it to the comments section below!

The Myth of Louder Is Better

The Myth of Louder Is Better

Alicia Keys at Pavilhão Atlântico, Lisbon, Portugal, by José Goulão under CC BY-SA 2.0

The following was written by voice teacher and professional opera singer, Anne, who debunks the myth that louder is better.

A lot of us have been there. At least, I know that I have. Given the ungainly combination of short stature with a strong larynx, my biggest compliment on my voice when I was younger was “Such a big voice for such a small girl!” No one ever commented on the pitch, the tone, the quality. All I ever heard was “Such a big voice for such a small girl.”

Sometimes, we are impressed by things not because of their quality but because they take us by surprise. Even as an adult, I will still get the same comment. I have a resonant voice, like my grandmother who used to work the New York City switchboards in the 1920’s. It’s genetics. Resonant voice, by the way, was my grandmother’s way of saying that I was too loud. Back in elementary school I remember having an argument with a classmate. I told him that opera singers had to be good singers–he was adamant that all they had to be was loud. That’s it. Sing loudly and saunter on stage at the Metropolitan.

Of course, nothing is so simplistic. We understand, as adults, that in order to get onto the stage at the Metropolitan you need to be more than just loud. And frankly, you need to be more than just good. Believe me, I’ve walked out of enough auditions empty handed to know. But still, there is a slight persistence in that myth. Loud is powerful, loud is the big refrain after we have modulated so that everyone knows how serious we are. Loud is “Defying Gravity.” Loud is “Girl on Fire.” Loud is the last verse of “Stairway to Heaven.” But loud isn’t always good.

A sure-fire way to get a loud sound is to blow a bunch of air through your vocal folds. That doesn’t make much sense, so let’s go with an image. Imagine the state flag of California, with the bear just gently blowing in the breeze. Now imagine that the Santa Ana’s pick up, and that flag is being whipped about by the winds. It isn’t gently blowing. It is taunt and tight and struggling. And that is what blowing too much air through your vocal folds is like. It is like the Santa Ana’s trying to knock that poor bear off of his flag.

We all want to sound like Indina Menzel or Alicia Keys. We all want loud, powerful voices. And sometimes, in order to get those, we need to step back. We need to drop those Santa Ana force winds down to the light, steady breeze that keeps the bear up on the flag happy. When we do that, when we use less air and control what we do use better, our tone quality and our pitch almost always improve. But it is at a cost. Because until you relearn some technique, the volume of your voice will drop. And sometimes we shy away from that. After all, loud is good, right?

Louder isn’t always better. Sometimes we need to step back and allow ourselves to take that volume hit and bring our voices back to a more natural state. From there, we can build resonance, lift, and space, all things that will allow us to be louder in time. Singing takes time. Ask anyone who is on the stage of the Metropolitan. And sometimes you need to spend some time being softer.

how to sing softly

How to Sing Softly

Most people who are learning to sing want to know how to sing loudly, and that’s a very important skill. But an often underrated skill is being able to sing softly. It sounds easier than it is, especially if you have a naturally big voice. When singing softly, all too often breath control goes out the window, and our voices become pitchy and wobbly. But luckily, there are some techniques we can use to sing softly. Not every technique is relevant for every type of music, and the methods you choose to decrease your volume should be chosen with style in mind.

Let More Air Out

Letting out more air is a great choice for popular genres, like indie pop and jazz standards. Typical vocal pedagogy will have you hold back air. Letting out just a little bit more air will both soften your voice and give you a nice intimate sound.

Sing on Thinner Vocal Folds

Most singers understand thin vocal folds as head resonance, or head voice, and that’s a perfectly reasonable image to use if it helps get your voice where you want it to be. I prefer to think of it as more of a head-dominant mix, because as we’ve discussed in other posts about vocal registers, it’s more accurate to think of your voice as a spectrum than as a series of discrete registers. In any case, singing in a head-mix instead of a chest-mix is a great way to lighten up. To learn how to do this, imitate a tiny kitten and say with a very thin, small voice, “meeeeeoooww.”

Do you feel how small your voice feels? Now apply that feeling to the part of the song you want to sing more softly on, and you’ll be good to go. Singing on thinner vocal folds works in any genre.

De-Brighten Your Voice

Writing this almost feels like sacrilege, because I spend so much of my teaching time working with students on brightening their voices. You may have heard voice teachers use words like ping, squillo, and twang. To de-brighten your voice, you want to diminish some of that twang. In anatomical terms, twang is brought about by narrowing your aryepiglottic sphincter (AES). Removing twang is brought about by widening it.
Listen to do the difference:

To feel what a wide AES is, try talking in the stereotypical soft-spoken old lady voice.

Tilt Your Thyroid

This sounds more intimidating than it is. Tilting your thyroid gives you a sound you’re probably very familiar with making or hearing. Listen to the difference:

The thyroid tilt thins out your vocal folds, giving you a lighter sound. It’s used in almost every singing genre, but to varying degrees. A heavily tilted thyroid (often accompanied by a lower larynx) is something you commonly hear in classical and legit Broadway singing. But you’ll also hear a slightly tilted thyroid at the ends of long belted phrases in pop music to facilitate vibrato and make coming off of the belt less jarring.

Close Your Mouth

It’s probably not a big secret to you that opening your mouth wider can help produce more sound. The oral cavity is a resonance chamber, and the degree to which you open your mouth affects the resonance. The reverse is true as well. Closing your mouth cuts off some of the resonance and makes your sound smaller.

Lower Your Soft Palate

Lowering your soft palate (that fleshy area in your mouth above the root of your tongue) makes for a more nasalized sound, so this may not be your first choice when it comes to softening up. But especially when singing character roles, it shouldn’t be discounted. To feel what it’s like to lower your soft palate, start with a small “ng” sound and then switch to an “EE” sound without adjusting the space in your mouth. To test whether your soft palate is low, you can try plugging your nose. If the sound cuts off altogether, you’re singing with a lowered soft palate.