Do You Strain When You Sing?
By Jeannie Deva
You can hear it in the sound of your voice and feel it in your throat when it happens. The muscles tense and your vocal tone sounds pinched and shrill. You're straining and if your voice doesn't crack, you can consider yourself lucky. Perhaps you only experience strain when singing certain songs. You might think it's because you weren't born to sing in certain keys or you just have a naturally low voice or the song is wrong for you (even though you love it). Sure, you can lower the key or simply not include certain songs in your repertoire. However, there is a hidden reason why you strain when singing and because you don't know what it is, you have to blame it on other things. Putting your attention on things that are not the real reason, keeps the solution illusive and unobtainable. So, are you ready for the unveiling of the guilty party?
What is Vocal Strain?
Strain occurs when you sing if your vocal folds cannot vibrate as fully as they need to produce a given pitch. At that moment, the muscles that govern them are fighting to do what is needed of them, in conflict with an opposing tension. It would be like tensing the muscles of an arm at your side while simultaneously trying to raise that arm above your head. The imposed muscle tension is contradicting the necessary and natural function which would otherwise allow you to easily move your arm.
Three Main Reasons for Vocal Strain
1) Tongue Tension
Of all the muscles of your body, the tongue is the strongest muscle for its size. You use it more than you usually use most of your other muscles for: eating, drinking, swallowing, talking and of course singing. Additionally, if you overuse it when speaking or singing by articulating your words beyond what is needed in their natural pronunciation, it can become stiff or tense. Here's the anatomy of a tense tongue causing vocal strain.
The root of your tongue is essentially connected to the top of your larynx (voice box). The larynx is encased by cartilage and is located at the top of the trachea (the wind pipe running vertically in the front of your throat). Your Adam's apple is the front part of the larynx. Your vocal folds (mistakenly called vocal cords) are housed inside your larynx.
If your tongue is tensed when you speak or sing it causes a holding or stiffening of your larynx. When your tongue pulls up or pushes down it interferes with the natural position of your larynx. This effects the position and movement of your vocal folds which need to vibrate freely to create the sounds and pitches of your voice. Restriction of your larynx adversely affects the working of your vocal folds and the sound of your voice.
I am not saying your tongue should not move. However, if you make it move more than it naturally needs to, if you pull the back of it up as you "go for a high note" or put too much emphasis on a consonant (which will ALWAYS cause it to needlessly tighten and pull upwards) or push the back of the tongue down to "open your throat", then you are unwittingly creating problems for yourself and you will experience vocal strain. I have created a number of exercises that help limber your tongue and related muscles to help you achieve an ease and flexibility of singing you may not have previously experienced.
2) Air Over-blow
Many singers push out too much air when they sing. Here is something you probably wouldn't suspect to be true.
The higher you sing, the LESS AIR your vocal folds need for their vibration.
And if you push in your stomach/abdomen thinking this represents breath support, you may be surprised by what I"m next going to say. By doing so, you are pushing in against lower abdominal organs which in turn push up against your diaphragm and subsequently push up against your lungs. This inward/upward pressure forces out an excessive air flow that pushes up against your vocal folds like a tidal wave.
In my 35 years of researching the voice and teaching singers, I have found that any time a singer releases their abdominal pushing, singing becomes easier and their tone generally becomes fuller and more resonant. This lack of abdominal pushing however needs to be replaced with a more natural breath support based on the anatomical design of your body. I'm referring to the fact that the majority of your lungs are located in your back. They are housed inside and affixed to the lining of your rib cage. When your ribs expand, they open your lungs which pull in your breath. (Yes, the diaphragm does have something to do with this process as well but frankly, the rib movement is most important.)
If you breathe into your back and then sing, you will find a marked difference in how your voice responds. Just be sure to do this while permitting your abdomen to relax and move naturally rather than manipulate it. For some, this can take practice as old manipulative habits are discovered and released. For the rest of the story on this and fast acting exercises that help you work with your body's natural breathing and sound-making design, use my book and CD series Contemporary Vocalist Volume One.
3) Lack of Conditioning
Frequently singers try to make their voices to do things for which they have not really prepared the vocal muscles to accomplish. The analogy of an athlete helps illustrate this. Can you imagine an Olympic gymnast attempting a routine for which they had not trained their muscles? Of course not, and yet singers do this all the time. This is not so obvious for singing because you can't see your vocal folds. If you could, you would see that they need incredible agility, flexibility and strength to move, lengthen, shorten and vibrate at the speeds demanded to produce the variety of sounds a good song melody demands. Attempting to sing before developing the vocal folds and related muscles of the voice will undoubtedly result in strain and tension.
Singing after proper vocal muscle development through limbering and strengthening exercises is a completely different experience and one that is free of strain. Vocal exercises which are designed to work with how the body naturally produces sound will develop the agility, flexibility and strength to sing without straining. I have spent the majority of my life developing an approach to vocal development that is based upon the physiology of the voice and does not depend upon or dictate any particular style.
This permits you to develop your whole voice and use it the way you want as the creative and expressive singer that you are or want to be.
Wishing you the very best!
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