Tag Archives: aryepiglottic sphincter

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.

How to Sing With Twang

How to Sing With Twang

Last year, we talked about what the term twang means in singing. In short, twang is brightness, forward resonance, or that little laser-focused crying point you hear in a wide variety of vocal genres. It’s not the same as country twang, but it’s related because both use that little cry and a high degree of narrow, forward resonance.

So How Do You Sing With Twang?

Find That Buzz

Let’s start with a buzzy hum. You can do some scales on a hum, or change the words of a song to the hum. If you’re having a hard time getting a nice forward buzz, try these quick tips.

1. Put a puppy-dog cry into your hum.

You know the sound I’m talking about. The little cry will do a number of wonderful vocal things for you, including tilting your thyroid, but in this instance, it will also help you control your exhalation on the onset of the note.

2. Hold Back Air

If the puppy-dog cry isn’t an image that you can get on board with, simply think about controlling your air. Hold back air on your exhalation to get a little more of that buzz instead of letting the air drain out.

3. Scrunch Your Nose

Nose scrunching is a physical maneuver that can help narrow your aryepiglottic sphincter (AES) and get that buzzy sound.

Be Bratty

Once you’re controlling your air and feeling that buzz, you can get a very tangible twangy sensation by simply singing like a brat. Try singing “nya nya nya” like you’re a 6-year-old teasing a slower rival. Be really bratty with it. Do you feel how small and laser-focused the sound is? That’s your AES narrowing, giving you frontal resonance. If you’re worried that this isn’t a sound you want, fear not! Once you add some other elements in, like lifting your soft palate and tilting your thyroid (technique tips for another day) the sound will fill out and become way less obnoxious, while keeping the bright forward tone.

Scrunch Your Nose

We talked about this one earlier, but it’s worth reiterating that you can apply it to other things outside of the hum. Scrunching your nose will help give you that narrow, focused sound. Be careful how you use it though! While pop and country singers use this trick all the time, it’s not usually stylistically appropriate for more open, operatic sounds.

Keep the Sides of Your Tongue High

First say, “i” (as in feet.) Notice where the sides of your tongue are. Now say, “ah,” as if you’re at the doctor. Feel how much narrower and more focused the “i” feels? Next, say “ah,” but keep your tongue a little closer to the “i” position. Don’t go crazy with it; it still needs to sound like an “ah.” I bet you’ll get a slightly narrower, more focused sound.

Keep the Tongue Fairly Forward

Say “i” again, and then try saying “ooh” with your tongue pretty far back in your mouth. I bet that “i” sound felt like it was buzzier and more forward. Next say “ooh,” but keep your tongue in more of an “i” position. More forward, right? Be careful that when you’re keeping your tongue in the “i” position that your vowel still sounds like an “ooh.”

Don’t Forget

Forward resonance, or twang, is only one aspect of good singing. If you’re only focused on frontal resonance, you probably won’t love your sound. It might sound a little shrill and bratty. Once you have some twang, work on things like controlling your soft palate to add other resonances in.

How to Strengthen Your Head Voice

How to Strengthen Your Head Voice

We’ve talked a lot about learning to belt, which is a perfectly valid way to make your voice sound more powerful. But what if the notes are too high to belt, or you want to sing in a style that sounds better in your head voice or head-mix? Achieving a strong head voice probably won’t happen over night, but there are some very tangible steps you can take to strengthen your head voice.

What is Head Voice?

Before we talk about strengthening your head voice, it’s important to know what the term means and what it sounds like. Listen to the difference between these two ways of singing the same note. The first is chest dominant; the second is head dominant.

When you’re in a head mix or head voice, your vocal folds are thinner, so without solid technique, it tends to be softer and less “weighty” than chesty sounds. Luckily, with great technique, you can develop a big, powerful head voice, even with those thin folds.

How to Strengthen Your Head Voice

Use Great Posture

It’s amazing how connected the various structures in our body are. When we slouch, our respiratory system can’t work as efficiently: Our ribs won’t open very well, and there won’t be as much space in the thorax. Because singing is so much about how we regulate air, the simple act of standing up with good alignment (that is, stacking our vertebrae and keeping our tailbone gently pointing downward) will make our singing more efficient and powerful. Keep your feet firmly planted and your shoulders wide: You should feel stable enough that if someone were to push you, it would take them some work to push you over. Make sure to keep your head stacked on your neck and not pitched forward so that the space in your pharynx isn’t impinged on.

Work With Your Breath

Speaking of your respiratory system, learning breath control is important for strengthening your head voice. If you exhale the way you would on a normal exhalation, your head voice will sound like nothing but air. If you hold back your exhalation, you’ll get a lot more sound. Try taking a natural, relaxed inhalation, allowing your ribs to expand. As you sing a note in head voice, keep your ribs expanded, and don’t let your stomach suck back in. Try to let as little air out at a time as you can. It helps to start with a hum or an “ng” sound, because it’s easier to hold back your exhalation with a semi-occluded (partially closed) vocal tract.

Narrow Your AES

Aryepiglottic Sphincter may be hard to say, but luckily, it’s not that hard to manipulate. Narrowing your AES is a concept most people are very familiar with. Try saying “nya nya nya” in a bratty way. That narrow “ping” that you feel is the narrowing of your AES. You can use this concept in a belt, as well as in head voice. Pick a head voice note, and then make it brattier using the “nya nya nya” sound. You’ll probably immediately notice a difference in volume.

Lift Your Soft Palate

The twang you get from the narrowed AES is great, but you’re going to get a much louder, fuller sound if you couple that with a raised soft palate. You can experience what that’s like by finding that point at the top of a yawn when there’s a lot of space in your mouth and your cheek bones are lifted. You can also visualize a cat’s yawn, if that image is easier for you. That lifted palate will help give you a fuller sound (not to mention less nasal).

Lower Your Larynx (Proceed With Caution)

First, 2 disclaimers: 1. This one is only appropriate for certain styles of singing. You’ll certainly want to work toward a lower larynx for opera singing and some types of musical theatre, but this is very rarely a type of head-voice singing you’d want for commercial genres. 2. You’ll want to master the other head-voice tips before doing this one, because lowering your larynx without the other stuff solidly in place can cause new singers to drag down their soft palates and widen their AES’s.

When done correctly, singing with a relatively low larynx will create a much fuller, richer sound. To learn to do this, put your hand on your Adam’s apple. Swallow and feel how it rises. Now yawn and feel how it falls. Play around with this until you can learn to lower it at will. Just make sure you’re still using good breath control techniques and keeping your palate lifted.

Working on all of these techniques will increase the volume you can sing at in head voice over time. Don’t forget though: Singing is largely about muscle memory, so one of the very best ways to increase volume in your head voice is to sing in your head voice a lot. Knowing all this information in theory is great, but putting it to work by choosing vocal exercises and songs that require a lot of head-voice singing is the most important starting point.

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

thyroid-gland
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.

Speech Level Singing vs. Estil Voice Training

Speech Level Singing vs. Estill Voice Training

Mika playing keyboard at V Festival 2007 in Weston Park, Staffordshire, by Seraphim Whipp under CC BY 2.5

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t think there’s any one right way to sing or any one method to get you there. If you listen to the singers out there, they’re producing a wide range of sounds, many of which are pleasing to the ear. Even when you listen to one particularly versatile person, she’s often able to produce a wide range of sounds: belting, classical head voice, breathy…you get the idea. Because I’m at the tail end of an Estill workshop, I thought I’d write a post comparing (and offering my two cents on) these two famous vocal systems, Speech Level Singing (SLS) and Estill Voice (EVT).

Speech Level Singing vs. Estill Voice Training

Speech Level Singing

Speech Level Singing, often abbreviated SLS, is a famous vocal method developed by Seth Riggs. It’s been around for a long time but seemed to hit its stride and become the party line among musical theatre and pop singers in the 1990’s and early aughts. In short, SLS epouses that the larynx should always remain in a neutral position and that if if the larynx rises or drops, or the voice becomes breathy, there’s something wrong happening. The training focuses on developing a smooth mixed voice from low to high, and much of the training revolves around evening out the passagi (or voice breaks).

What I Like About It

SLS is fast and relatively easy to learn. It creates a fairly standard vocal sound (that of balance and clarity, without a whole lot of variation from low to high), and it does it well and efficiently. It gives exercises meant to raise the larynx (nay nay nay) that, in Estillian terms, are narrowing the aryepiglottic sphincter. To balance those out, it gives exercises meant to lower the larynx (mum mum mum) that, in Estillian terms, are causing the thyroid to tilt. Blended together, these two actions create a rich, bright open sound.

My background growing up was in SLS, and I developed a bright Disney princess-quality sound with it. It kept my voice very healthy, and I still use it with beginning students who want pretty voices but don’t know which style they’re interested in learning. After all, it does fairly quickly create a healthy, balanced voice.

What I Don’t Like About It

SLS is severely limited. It makes the claim that there’s only one right way to sing (i.e. neutral larynx, no breathiness, no voice breaks, etc.) when any child can listen to music and point out all the different types of singing out there that you can’t produce with just one type of technique. SLS doesn’t usually produce an exciting belt, a rich, low-larynx opera sound, a breathy indie voice, or a character voice like Kristen Chenoweth’s in Wicked unless the singer’s voice verges on these qualities to begin with (i.e. has a natural chesty belt sound while maintaining a neutral larynx).

SLS also isn’t research based, and it’s only relatively recently that they’ve begun doing their own research on the voice. The claim that the larynx should be neutral at all costs is not only incorrect, but it can be damaging if taken too literally. The larynx can and must rise at least a little bit to reach the highest pitches. Luckily, SLS teachers don’t actually tend to enforce the completely neutral larynx claim in practice.

When I began teaching, I found myself getting more and more frustrated with the gap between what I believed to be “correct singing” and what I was hearing so many wonderful singers sound like. I quickly became disenchanted with SLS as the one true vocal method and started to develop my own techniques for producing other desirable sounds.

Estill Voice

Estill Voice was created by Jo Estill, an American singer who conducted a considerable amount of research on the voice, even using herself as a research subject and having needles inserted into her mouth and throat without anesthetic. Estill Voice is an incredible system that isolates individual muscles associated with the voice and identifies how they affect your overall sound. For example, tilting your cricoid produces a heavy belt sound, a dropped velum produces nasality, and a narrowed aryepiglottic sphincter produces twang. The system then identifies different vocal recipes (speech, twang, belt, sob, falsetto, and opera) and teaches you different ways to manipulate your muscles to create the desired recipe. This is not to say that these are the only recipes you can create with these muscles or that they’re the only way to create the recipes.

What I Like About It

I can’t say enough great things about Estill Voice. The system acknowledges that there isn’t just one way to learn to sing. In fact, with the number of combinations for using our vocal muscles, there are duodecillions of ways to put everything together and create different sounds (a particularly math-headed Estill student in the workshop figured out the number). Speech Level Singing, with its claims of being the be-all-end-all of vocal technique, really just produces one “recipe” among many.

I also appreciate the research-based nature of Estill’s work. She didn’t make claims that she hadn’t studied. Her vocal system may not be comprehensive, but she never claimed that it was and hoped the research would continue after she died.

What I don’t Like About It

The only real negative to Estill’s system is actually one of the things I appreciate about it: that it’s not really a vocal method. Instead, it’s a series of muscles you can use to create various vocal recipes. It’s incredibly technical and not an easy system to learn. Even knowing the various “recipes,” I’d still probably be more likely to draw from SLS with beginners who want to sound good fast. As with anything, when you choose one thing (or recipe) to focus on exclusively, you’ll probably be better at that one thing than if you try to do multiple recipes at once. Now let me be clear. There’s nothing about Estill’s system that suggests you need to work on all the recipes at once, but for beginners looking into it, it’s likely that they’d go on information overload.

Another drawback I can find is that the “recipes” in EVT are somewhat controversial. People disagree widely on what a belt should sound like and what characterizes speech quality. And certainly there are many, many different styles of opera.

Finally, while everything in EVT done correctly is healthy, some of it takes a considerable amount of work (and preferably the close eye of a qualified voice teacher) to do correctly. Because it can be used for more muscular sounds, like heavier belts and low-larynx opera work, singers need to be particularly attentive to signs of constriction.

Conclusion

Even though EVT does have its drawbacks, I’m much more impressed with the system than I am with SLS. I’m wary of any vocal method that claims that it’s the only way to sing correctly, and while I do like the bell-like clarity typically produced by SLS at its best, I’m much more in favor of a system that encourages you to play with the duodecillion beautiful sounds your voice can create.