Hit Those Notes When You’re Nervous
To create different pitches we alter the length, tension and mass of our vocal folds, determining the frequency of vibration and consequently the pitch. In order to hit high notes the vocal folds need to vibrate at a higher frequency than for lower notes; for instance, when singing a top C the vocal folds need to make contact with each other approximately 1047 times a second to create the sound wave we hear as C6, in comparison to 440 times a second for A4. There are several ways of positioning the vocal folds for high notes depending on what sound or style you want to deliver. Whilst it’s hard to prescribe a ‘fits all’ approach, here are 3 tips that you may find useful:
1. Don’t tighten the throat
If you are frightened of high notes your body can go into a physical state that we term ‘fight or flight’. We are born with primal instincts, and when the mind and body perceive situations to be scary or threatening the muscles within the larynx respond.
Above the true vocal folds sit the false vocal folds. Their primary job is to protect the airway. When singing, only the true vocal folds should vibrate. The false vocal folds should not be involved. However, in a time of panic both the true and false vocal folds may tighten in a protective bracing action. When this happens the breath flow is affected and the voice can sound strained. Physically we need to gain control over the musculature and consciously move the false vocal folds into a widened position to avoid constriction. Try these exercises:
Without making a sound grunt as if you are about to lift a heavy object. You should feel a closure in the throat that is stronger than when you simply hold your breath. In Estill Voice Training this narrowing action is termed ‘Constriction’ and it’s what we want to avoid.
Remaining silent, make the action of a secret smile within the throat or feel the beginning of a yawn. Whilst you are doing that you should feel a width in the throat. Jo Estill termed this widening sensation as ‘Retraction’ and this is what we want to focus on feeling when attempting high notes.
In silent practice try moving between the constricted and the retracted positions to enhance awareness and control.
2. Straighten up your posture
Posture plays a huge part in being able to access high notes. We have two vocal folds, right and left, positioned from front to back and we need them to work symmetrically. Every day repeated movements such as carrying a bag on the same shoulder or looking in the same direction to talk to a colleague at work can knock our physiological symmetry out of line. This in turn, can affect the vibration of the vocal folds.
Good alignment of the spine is crucial and a badly aligned spine, especially in the cervical section that sits behind the larynx, could restrict laryngeal mobility. A slow roll down exercise will provide awareness of posture, alignment and symmetry (only try these exercises if you have no history of back or neck problems):
Standing with your feet hip-width apart, tuck the chin towards your neck and slowly start to curl the spine down until your head and torso are relaxed over your toes.
Take a few breaths in this position, engage the abdominal muscles to support the back as you slowly roll back up to standing. Repeat, all the while checking both sides are moving symmetrically.
3. Have a strong body
Tension is a dirty word when talking about singing because it implies rigidity, but a certain amount of directed effort into specific muscles can help you hit high notes. When the vocal folds are vibrating together hundreds of times a second they can benefit from some support from other muscles to help them do this. An example of this would be activating the latissimus dorsi muscles which pull the shoulder blades down:
To feel this, imagine you are squeezing tennis balls under your armpits.
Focus on the muscular effort you feel under the arms, across the chest and under and around the shoulder blades. Physical effort can be contagious so we need to make sure that it doesn’t spread to other muscles causing negative tension or strain in areas such as the jaw, tongue or larynx. It is a matter of keeping the effort targeted and isolated.