Tag Archives: false vocal folds

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 healthier

How to Sing Healthier in Almost Any Genre

Voice teachers will sell you a lot of bunk about what you can and can’t do with your voice: “healthy belting” is an oxymoron for a lot of people, with “healthy breathy singing” trailing right behind it in the imaginations of fear mongering vocal technicians. Granted, I’ll be the first to tell you that you can injure your voice belting (or singing breathy, or singing operatically) if you consistently over-push air, sing with uncontrolled constriction, and don’t listen to your body and back off when you’re feeling discomfort. Luckily, there’s a quick and surprisingly easy way to sing healthier in almost any genre: to retract your false vocal folds. Yeah, yeah, I know that probably sounds completely foreign and intimidating, but it’s not as weird as it sounds.

What Are False Vocal Folds?

First, a very quick rundown of true vocal folds: Your true vocal folds are two bands of tissue in your larynx (or voice box) that vibrate when you speak or sing. Your false vocal folds are two other bands of tissue above your true vocal folds. Their main role is to squeeze together and protect you during heavy labor, coughing, or swallowing in order to prevent any unwanted substance from entering your airways.

What Does This Have to Do with Singing?

Squeezing your false vocal folds might be great for keeping food out of your windpipe, but it’s not so great for singing. When the FVF are constricted, your true vocal folds can’t freely vibrate. This can be dangerous over time in any form of singing. Unfortunately, the same stress reactions that cause your FVF to say, “Hey! This person might be choking! Let’s close up to protect her” often cause them to say, “Hey! This person is about to sing in public and is terrified! Let’s close up!” What’s helpful in the first situation is actually detrimental in the second.

So What Do you Do? How Can You Learn to Sing Healthier?

To sing healthier in any genre, it’s useful to learn how to retract your false vocal folds so that your true vocal folds can freely vibrate. As with any bodily coordination, over time you’ll learn to pull them apart at will, and beyond that, your muscle memory will get you to this healthy place when you sing if you do it enough. But at the beginning, you’ll need some images to help you out.

1. Laugh Silently

You might look like a lunatic, but in the privacy of your own home or your voice teacher’s studio, try laughing silently. Do you feel how open your throat feels when you do that? That’s how it feels to retract your false vocal folds.

2. Moan

I don’t like this one quite as much because while the silent laughter gives you a lift before you sing, moaning tends to bring everything down. But for some people, this is the best way to feel false vocal fold retraction. To do this one, let out a giant, relaxed moan, not a tense whimper.

3. Imagine your Ears Pulling Apart

This one is probably my favorite, because you can be discreet about it and continue to use it even in performance settings. Simply visualize your ears pulling apart. You’ll probably feel your cheekbones rise, your eyes smile, and your throat open.

Test It!

To see if you’re really retracting your false vocal folds, cover your ears and breathe normally. You’ll most likely hear your own breathing, and it’ll sound like the ocean. Then retract your false vocal folds and keep breathing. Everything should go almost or entirely silent.

Apply it to Your Singing

It can be challenging to remember to do at first, but if you work on applying this technique to your singing, everything, from operatic singing to heavy belting, will be more comfortable and healthy. Make sure to continue to listen to your body though. The best indication that your singing is healthy is that your throat is comfortable. If you feel a scratch, tickle, or cough as you’re singing, it’s time to take a break. And if this continues long term, it’s best to see an otolaryngologist.

Should Singing Be Effortless?

Should Singing Be Effortless?

There’s a persistent myth floating around the vocal world suggesting that singing should be effortless. I can’t tell you how many new students I get telling me that they were told that singing would just “feel free” and that if they had to put physical work into it, they were somehow doing it wrong and abusing their voices. As you may have guessed by now, the short answer to the blog’s title is, no, singing should not necessarily be effortless. But let’s dissect the concept a little more and figure out where it came from and whether there’s any truth to it.

Why Do People Say Singing Should Be Effortless?

Singing may not be effortless, but the statement isn’t completely out of the blue. Inexperienced singers sometimes think that the best way to get a difficult note out is to push as hard as they can and to blow a lot of air. Their throat will feel tense, but they’ll push through it with the no-pain-no-gain maxim and end up coughing and possibly injuring themselves after a particularly rigorous vocal session. This is not the best approach, and it’s led to voice teachers to go in the opposite direction.

In What Ways Should Singing Be Effortless?

1. Your Throat Should Not Feel Constricted

First off, your throat should not feel constricted when you sing. This is not to say that no work is being done in your larynx, or voice box. Your vocal folds are vibrating, and your larynx is probably gently moving up and down. But your false vocal folds, the two thick folds of mucous membrane that protect your true vocal folds, should usually remain retracted and not squeezed together if you want to maintain good vocal health. If you feel a tightness or discomfort in your throat, try laughing silently to feel what it’s like when everything is unrestricted.

2. Your Tongue Should Remain Free of Tension

While your tongue may do a lot of work when you sing and should not just lie lazily in your mouth, you also don’t want to feel a bunch of tension at the root of your tongue. If your tongue feels like it has to tense up in order to get a particular sound out, you may want to do some tongue exercises. Tongue twisters set to a variety of pitches work well for this.

3. You Should Not Feel Your Neck Muscles Bulging Out

If muscles are popping out around your neck, and you feel your chin jutting forward and your shoulders rising toward your ears, chances are, you should work on loosening up.

4. You Don’t Want Jaw Tension

Your jaw will certainly do plenty of work when you sing, but if you feel it locking up or needing to maintain a taut position while you’re singing, it’s time to work on freeing it up a bit.

So Where is the Effort in Singing?

This may surprise you, but there are a number of muscles at work when you sing: muscles that lift and lower your soft palate so that you can control nasality; muscles that change your tongue position to form vowels; muscles that keep your spine erect and your shoulders broad to anchor your neck and torso in place and give your smaller laryngeal muscles maximal control; muscles to keep your ribcage expanded to allow for better control of air; and many, many others. Singing can be both physically and mentally tiring, especially at the beginning, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Vocal students of mine who sing effortfully in all the right ways will let me know how physically tired they are after working through a difficult passage. This doesn’t mean that their throats hurt and they’re coughing. It just means that their core is a little sore, their backs are a little tired, and maybe they’re even a little bit winded.

How Much Effort Should You Put In?

The answer is, as much as you need to. One of the primary roles of a voice teacher is to help students sing with a maximum amount of efficiency. If a song is easy on your voice, sounds great, and is at the volume you want it at, you may not want to pull out all the physical stops to make your voice carry more. This is a time to conserve your energy. If you’re singing at the top of your range, you’ll need to experiment and learn exactly how much to stabilize your torso, how much to lift your soft palate, and how much to control your airflow. It’s going to be different for different singers and different and different on different days, so try not to be attached to any particular amount of effort something takes.

Most importantly, don’t stress out if singing doesn’t always feel easy. Sometimes it’ll truly feel effortless, and that feeling can be exhilarating and cathartic. Other times, it’ll take mindful control of 20 different muscles just to get through a tough passage of a song, and that’s okay too!

Get Over Stage Fright: Make Yourself Laugh

Everyone knows performing can be scary. In past posts we’ve discussed strategies for getting over stage fright, including playing a character and enrolling in a group class. Today we have an even simpler suggestion for you: just make yourself laugh. I know it doesn’t sound that helpful, but laughter is a powerful tool.

It Changes Your Brain

First off, smiling actually changes your brain chemistry. It triggers your body to release endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, all neurotransmitters involved in making us feel happy and less stressed. Even if your smile or laugh is fake, merely moving your mouth that way will send your brain the same signal. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how that would help you cope with performance anxiety.

It Loosens Up Your Throat

When you laugh, your throat becomes less constricted. False vocal fold constriction happens when your body is under stress. Evolutionarily, this helps serve a very important purpose: the constriction protects our bodies during strenuous activity so that our lungs don’t collapse from the labor. But the constriction is not so helpful for singing or public speaking. Laughter causes your false folds to open up and stop clenching. Your voice will sound freer, and your vocal production will be healthier. In this way, laughter is a physical and not just a psychological tool for performing better.

So Laugh!

It’s as simple as that. Whether it’s calling up your hilarious friend or looking through your favorite bizarre pictures on Imgur, do what you need to do to crack yourself up before a performance.

How to Sing Hard Notes Without Pushing

How to Sing a Hard Note Without Pushing

Image, by ePi.Longo, under CC BY-SA 2.0

Not pushing harder to get hard notes out feels counterintuitive when you first start working at it. If you don’t push harder, how are you going to work toward belting a higher note, or worse yet, how are you going to sustain a belted note that feels just out of reach? If you don’t push, how are you going to make your head voice less breathy and get that full soprano sound you’ve heard other singers make? Let’s get one thing out of the way. Singing hard notes, whether they’re belted or high up in your head voice, takes work. When you hear voice teachers tell you that every note should be “effortless,” either that teacher isn’t expressing himself very well (and what he’s trying to say is that you shouldn’t feel constriction in your throat) or that teacher is moving you toward producing a sound you’re less interested in (sustaining that note in head-mix or head voice instead of a belt, for example). Hitting a hard note takes effort. It’s just a matter of where that effort goes. Here’s how to sing a hard note without pushing.

How Not to Hit Hard Notes

We covered this a little in the intro, but simply pushing harder and harder or yelling louder and louder is not the way to go. Not only will you not produce a pleasant sound (unless a constricted-sounding yell is what you’re after–I’m not actually judging that), but you’ll probably injure your voice over time and learn unsustainable vocal habits.

But it’s not just that you shouldn’t yell louder and louder. Voice teachers will often tell you that you shouldn’t push from your throat but that pushing hard from your stomach and pelvis is what you should be doing. But even this isn’t exactly correct. Forcing your stomach to suddenly and violently contract will still result in throat constriction and will limit your range and agility.

How to Sing Hard Notes

Okay, so if you can’t yell, and you can’t push from your stomach, what’s left?

The Effort Should Feel Isometric

If you’re not sure what isometric exercise is, put your hands together in prayer position and push as hard as you can. The resistance from each hand will keep the other hand from moving, no matter how much effort you use. If you were to use that much effort with your right hand but take away your left one, your right arm would go flying, and there’s a good shot you’d injure yourself.

The same goes for singing. Instead of suddenly contracting your stomach and forcing air out to hit a hard note, visualize slowly working against some resistance. Start with good posture. Stand up straight, with your feet at least hips-distance apart and your knees soft. Point your tailbone toward the floor as your quads move back, while your head, neck, and torso stay energized and lifted. Before going for the hard note, anchor your torso in such a way that if someone were to push you they wouldn’t be able to knock you over. The amount you need to anchor depends on the difficulty of the note for you. As you prepare to hit the note, instead of violently crunching into the note, think of having your feet glued to the floor as your knees and torso attempt to move downward through water.

You Should Counterbalance the Motion With a Lift

Even with the water visualization, any type of effort in your torso and pelvis can cause your throat to lock up. It’s hard to separate effort in one area of our body from effort in others. To counterbalance this tendency, you should feel lifted. Visualize the top of your head attached to a string that’s pulling you upward, as your shoulders relax downward. Keep your face energized, with your cheekbones lifted, like you’re about to laugh. In technical terms, this will cause your false vocal folds to retract so that your throat feels open and comfortable.

Hard Songs to Sing: Wildest Dreams, by Taylor Swift

Hard Songs to Sing: Wildest Dreams, by Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift 1989 Tour at Ford Field in Detroit, 5/30/15, by GabboT, under CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently got a request for a Hard Songs to Sing post on “Wildest Dreams,” by Taylor Swift. Although I think this one is tamer than some of the other Taylor songs I’ve written about, like “Shake it Off,” it poses its own unique set of challenges–shifting from a belt to a breathy quality, for example. For anyone not familiar with “Wildest Dreams” by now, here’s a video to help you out.
*Warning: To any young viewers, the music video isn’t exactly explicit, but adult content is strongly implied. I looked for a lyric video to replace it, but this is the only video that actually exists with Taylor’s voice.

Why Is This Song Hard?

It Sits in an Uncomfortable Range.

“Wildest Dreams” isn’t unmanageably high, but the belt in the chorus (which goes up to C5) sits in an uncomfortable transition spot for some voices.

It Transitions to Breathiness

A breathy quality isn’t that difficult in and of itself, but this song transitions from a belt directly into breathiness without, well, taking a breath.

It Doesn’t Leave Much Breathing Room

As is characteristic of Taylor Swift songs, “Wildest Dreams” doesn’t leave obvious places to come up for air, particularly in the bridge, starting with “You see me in hindsight.”

Instant Gratification

Open the “EE’s.”

The “EE” sound tends to feel pinched and sound nasal in the upper middle part of your voice if you don’t open it enough. Open it into a slight “i” (as in kick) sound and make sure your soft palate stays slightly lifted. You can feel this action by simulating the beginning of a yawn. Don’t go so far with the yawn that the sound starts to sound hooty or heady though. Experiment with it until you have a nice open-sounding mixed belt on the chorus.

Take Apart the “AH”

One of the more challenging aspects of “Wildest Dreams” is the “Ah” at the end of the chorus, because it moves from a mixed belt directly into a breathy descent. I would recommend taking it apart. Work on getting a nice mixed belt on the Bb4 at 0.57 of the video. Then for the Eb5 at 0.58, sigh onto the note with a slight “h” sound. The sigh, coupled with the “h” sound, facilitates the breathy voice quality. When you get very comfortable separating the two parts of the “Ah,” try putting them together. Visualize the sound going back, up, and over your head, like it’s creating a “C” shape around your ear.

Figure Out Places to Breathe Ahead of Time

Sometimes knowing where to breathe is just a matter of working it out before you’re in the process of singing. We’ve all been in that situation where we’re happily singing through a phrase and then suddenly realize that we have no shot at maintaining enough breath. In the bridge, make sure you get enough air before singing “You’ll see me in hindsight” and take your first breath after “burning.” Take another good breath before “Someday when you leave me,” and take your next one after “follow.” Just knowing how long you have before you get a breath can sometimes help determine how much air you need to take in ahead of time and how slowly you need to release it.

Not-So-Instant Gratification

Learn to Retract Your False Vocal Folds

Next to your true vocal folds (the part of our voices that open and close to produce sound), we have what’s called false vocal folds. When our false vocal folds are constricted, our voices feel tight and uncomfortable. When they’re retracted, our voices feel comfortable and stay healthier. Here’s a video to demonstrate what it looks like to constrict and retract your false vocal folds. Don’t worry. I’ll explain how to do this.

Because Taylor’s choruses often sit in an uncomfortable area of the female voice (the upper-middle register) and tend to hang out there, it’s important to keep your false vocal folds retracted and comfortable. To do this, try simulating what your throat does right before you laugh. If this is difficult, you can also let out a hearty laugh and then do that same laugh silently. You should feel your throat open up. Work on this action, and then try it right before a chorus.

Develop a Mixed Belt

You don’t have to have a giant, powerful belt to pull off Taylor Swift, but you’ll at least want to find a relaxed mixed belt. In Part 1 of my belting collection, I give you a series of exercises to help you develop this technique.

Have a song you’d like to see as part of this Hard Songs to Sing tutorial? Recommend one in the comments section.