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.
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.
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.”
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.