Tag Archives: intercostals

Why Singers are Athletes

Why Singers are Athletes

Singers are artists. They’re musicians, storytellers, and actors who convey the highest highs and lowest lows of the human experience. But they’re also something you may not have considered: athletes. In this post, our amazing voice teacher Anne discusses how and why singing is a form of athleticism.

We have a concept of singing; we have an ideal of it being this massive expression of emotions, and when we get it right, we are suddenly able to fill a room with the power of our voice. We have a belief that everything involving singing and music is all cerebral and pulmonary, that it all comes from our knowledge mixed with our emotions and our passion for music. We have to feel the music, and once we feel it, we will have this effortless expression of who we are.

This is, unfortunately, not entirely true. There is a bit more to the process.

Let me de-romanticize this for you. Trust me, I am very good at doing that. What is singing? Singing is controlling the breath when we exhale, allowing us to more efficiently use our respiratory system to our advantage. What, then, are voice lessons? Frankly put, the removing of ineffective habits and replacing them with effective habits. And these habits are, for the most part, very physical habits. Singing, you see, is very athletic.

Breath support is a fundamental aspect of singing. Not every teacher agrees, but to me, breath support is the fundamental aspect of singing. A lack of breath support can cause a wide variety of issues, leading from an airy sound, to flat pitches, an inability to get into the head voice, an inability to get lower notes, unwanted tension in the jaw, in the tongue, an overuse of air leading to a whole host of other issues. You get the point. Breath support is important. Now here is the part that a lot of people don’t want to hear: breath support is work. There is nothing effortless about it.

I ask my students many times to put their hands on certain parts of their torsos. “Make sure the muscle stays engaged the entire time,” I tell them. “Make sure you can feel that muscle working.” Most of them don’t like it, but when they do it, they begin to notice the changes and the improvements in their voice. Suddenly, there is their head voice. Almost as if by magic, that note is in tune. All the sudden, their voice has so much more sound. But it isn’t magic, and it isn’t a quick fix. Unfortunately, until that sort of breathing becomes a kinesthetic memory, meaning that your body remembers what to do without your necessarily having to think about it, you are going to have to think about it. And you are going to have to remember that those muscles need to work, and that it will be hard, and that it will take a lot of time to get those muscles to do what you want them to do. Just like someone learning how to swim, run, or play a sport.

There is only one place that singing should feel effortless. That is in the throat. Our tiny vocal folds, which at their largest don’t even measure a full inch–they shouldn’t feel any stress, strain, or pressure. They should just feel the effects of a constant, easy flow of air, gently moving them like a flag in a pleasant breeze. Our other muscles, however, our intercostals, obliques, pelvic floor, et al, they should all be working. Enough to make you sweat. Enough to make you tired. Singing takes effort. It takes work, and energy, and the only way it is ever going to seem effortless is for you to put a lot of effort into it. Physical, muscular energy.

All of the ease and the grace, the artistry of singing that we are all striving for, the emotion and connection necessary to make people feel, that is only possible with the gritty, ugly, and sweaty job of supporting the breath and really asking your lower body to work for you. Without the foundation, there is nothing for the voice to balance on, and it can all come falling down.

Hard Songs to Sing: Issues, by Julia Michaels

Hard Songs to Sing: Issues, by Julia Michaels

On the surface, “Issues,” by Julia Michaels, may not seem like a tough a song. It doesn’t go that high, and when it does, Michaels transitions into a light head voice. But you’d be surprised at how many problems those little note jumps can cause you if you aren’t prepared for them. The result I often see with students trying it for the first time is a lot of unnecessary vocal tension or some shoutiness on the higher parts. If these sound like, well, issues you’re having, take a look through our latest Hard Songs to Sing tutorial.

Why Is This Song Hard?

1. The Ab’s in the Verses

The beginning of the first verse sits in a very easy area for female chest voice, but then on the line, “When I’m down I get real down” leaps up to an Ab4 (a place many singers no longer feel that chest tones are effortless).

2. The C’s in the Pre-Choruses

The line, “baby I would judge you, too” moves from an Ab4, a note many singers are tempted to belt, to a C5 on the word I, which probably shouldn’t stylistically be belted for this song.

3. The C#5’s in the Choruses

It’s not that C#5 is crazy high. But the whole chorus sits in a fairly high, uncomfortable area for many singers, and it’s worth discussing.

Instant Gratification

Figure the High Notes Out First

Whether you lighten up and move into a headier spot for the note jumps (“down I get real down,” etc.) or stay a little chestier, you’ll want to make sure your body is set up for the higher notes before you attack them. The beginning of the verse doesn’t require much in the way of breath support, but if you don’t put in a little work and thought early, the higher notes will feel like you need to make a sudden adjustment–causing many people to just slam into them. Start with the highest notes first (down, I, etc.) If they’re feeling throaty, make sure you distribute that work to your torso through good breath support.

How to Support Your High Notes

1. Stay wide across your back and broad in your shoulders
2. Keep your spine long.
3. Use your external intercostal muscles (the ones between your ribs) to keep your ribs open instead of sucked in like you’re doing crunches.
4. You should feel so stable that if I came and tried to push you over (don’t worry! I’m not that strong or intimidating!) I wouldn’t be able to.

How to Relax Your Throat

While you do all this (as if this breath support didn’t take enough concentration) work on relaxing your throat. Here are some tips if it’s causing you trouble.
1. Pretend you’re about to laugh or sigh
2. Visualize pulling your ears apart.
3. For something more tangible, rock your head back and forth to keep from clenching.

All that was in the service of getting those higher notes down first. The next step is to add the lower ones; but get your body set up the way it needs to be while you’re singing the low ones, so you aren’t making quick adjustments when you maneuver into the higher ones.

Easy Modifications

Lose the Diphthongs

1. The word down has both the “ah” and the “ooh” vowels in them. That can be a little unwieldy, especially given how fast the verses move. Just go for the “ah” sound like you’re saying “Don.”
2. The I in the chorus can be modified to an “ah” as well, as if you’re just letting out a big sigh.

Modify the “a” (as in cat) sound to an “eh.”

If you’ve read my Hard Songs blogs before, you might be surprised to hear me say this, since I’m often a big fan of modifying everything to the bright, twangy “a” sound. But for this, you want something to help you lift your soft palate and lighten up a little bit. “Eh” is perfect for that, so try making your that and fast in the verses “thet” and “fest.”

Not-So-Instant Gratification

Vowel modifications, coupled with some quick tips to help with support and relaxation, are great, but there’s nothing quite like building up long-term muscle memory through some vocal exercises.

Humming Up a 5th

This is a great one for figuring out how to support high notes (see Instant Gratification section). Sing a 5-note scale on a hum, and end it by jumping up the 5th and back down. The first pass will help you figure out how to gradually get to that high note, while the second pass will force you to prepare for the high note without any gradual build.

Na to Nah Belt

Belting is often easier for people on the “a” (as in cat) sound than on the “ah” (as in fox), so to work on your belt, let’s start with a Na and then move to a Nah. Try to keep the same narrow twang on the “ah” as on the “a.” C#5 is the note you’re aiming for in “Issues.” If you can’t quite get there right now, just work on this exercise, and over time your belting range should increase. Don’t forget to use the same support we talked about earlier to get that pressure out of your throat, and most importantly, if you feel a lot of tension in your throat, it might be time to take a break from this exercise. You can always come back to it when you’re fresh on another day.

Have a song you’d like to see a Hard Songs Tutorial on? Let us know in the comments section below!