As a worship leader and musician I’m always looking for ways to help those serving on the worship teams to grow in their craft. Vocals are one of the more challenging instruments to improve since it’s hard to nail down concepts and techniques. Let me explain my thinking …
I can show someone how to play a chord on their guitar or strum a double strum but I can’t physically “show” someone how to isolate a muscle or “feel” vibrations when singing in their upper register or head voice. I can only help them discover these for themselves through exercises and practice.
This unique aspect of voice study brings with it loads of questions on the part of the voice student. I’ve listed some of those questions below, care of Brett Manning and Singing Success, who has developed a program that has helped so many worship leaders overcome numerous vocal obstacles and challenges.
Q: Are falsetto and head voice the same thing?
A: No. Falsetto is the lightest vocal production made by the human voice. It is limited in strength, dynamics and tonal variation. Usually, there is a considerable ‘jump,’ ‘break’ or ‘disconnect’ between your chest (speaking) voice and your falsetto. Noted vocal coach and voice therapist Randy Buescher of Chicago defines falsetto as:
“a coordination where the outer layer of the vocal cord (mucosa, i.e. internal skin or muscular covering) is vibrating, creating sound, but without engaging the actual musculature of the cord. Also, there exists no medial compression. In other words, during the vibratory cycle, the cords never fully approximate. In head voice, the cords approximate, but the vibration of the cord moves away from the full depth of the vocal cord (chest voice) to a pattern that involves less and less depth of vocal cord as you ascend toward the top of your range. The highest notes of your range involve only the vocal ligament. However, there is no consensus among experts on the official definition of vocal registers.”
Q: What’s the proper way to clear my throat?
A: Some say that you should never clear your throat, but excess mucous inhibits free vocal cord coordination. The trick is to find a way to clear your throat without irritating it. Do a gentle “whispered cough” (without tone) and then swallow. Repeat. If this doesn’t work, you need to deal with the excess mucous production. Squeeze a 1/4 of a lemon in a tall glass of water and sip over about 20 minutes. This should cut through a lot of the excess mucous. Furthermore, watch your dairy intake… especially cheese. You should never eat it on the day of a performance!
Q: How do I deal with temperature extremes or changes in climate?
A: Moisture and time zones are two very important keys. For me, the worst is flying from Nashville to the dry air of Phoenix and trying to sing the same day I arrive. I need at least twenty-four hours to adjust. Eventually, your body will become more adept to rapid changes in climate, but in the beginning of your career I wouldn’t recommend booking yourself in Maine on Monday, Tulsa on Tuesday, and then Orlando on Thursday. This would be vocal suicide. The more extreme the climate change the more taxing to the body. You are a human instrument with good days and bad days. The longer you travel, the quicker your body should adjust to travel and change of climate. In the mean time, get plenty of fluids (about twice as much as you probably think you need) and some Entertainer’s Secret.
Q: Is it OK for me to sing when I have a sore throat?
A: Depending on what’s causing it, singing with a sore throat can be catastrophic. I tell my clients, “if it hurts to swallow, don’t sing!” Conversely, if it’s a mildly soar throat, consult your doctor (it’s a good idea to find a good ear, nose, throat specialist in your area and build a relationship with him) and then use your best judgment. Dry air, singing abusively, and viral/bacterial infection are some of the more common causes of a sore throat. Some people just wake up with a sore throat every day of their life. I’ve found that the majority of those people have acid-reflux, which means they are burping up stomach acids while they are sleeping or sometimes even while they are awake. For most, however, this happens in the night, so they may be completely unaware of the problem. They then wake up with a scratchy, raspy voice and a sore throat. There are numerous web sites directed to the problem of reflux. Let me recommend a couple:
Because a dry throat is often a sore throat, consume two to three quarts of water every day. I actually drink up to a gallon or more a day. If you live in an arid climate, sleep with a humidifier next to your bed and try to warm up your voice in the shower. The moisture is an incredible help for your voice. Also, learn to breathe in through your nose as much as possible. This will help moisten the air before it reaches your cords.
The next concern is vocal abuse. Some of the causes are singing too high and too loud for too long, screaming, yelling at a football game or concert, talking at the top of your voice in a noisy crowd, breathing cigarette smoke (first- for second-hand), doing voice impersonations that are extreme or that cause strain and talking or singing with a raspy, manufactured sound. Whenever my throat is sore from vocal abuse I try to get some vocal rest, drink plenty of liquids, and then rehabilitate my voice with gentle exercises like humming, lip bubbles, and tongue trills. If you get laryngitis and your tone starts to ‘skip’ or ‘cut out’ in the middle of a sustained note, you really want to get serious vocal rest. Most of all, ALWAYS consult your physician if things don’t clear up rapidly. By this, I mean, if you get a sore throat in the morning and it clears up by noon and doesn’t come back (this occasionally happens to me) then there’s usually nothing to worry about. Otherwise, call the doctor, because if this condition is medical and you don’t get help, no amount of vocal rest will help. I personally prefer herbal immune system remedies, but do what works best for you.
Q: Should I eat before I sing or perform?
A: If you are hungry, eat. Don’t stuff yourself with a 7-course meal. Just eat until you are satisfied. Always eat at least an hour before your performance to avoid what singers call a “gunky” throat. You will have the strongest temptation to clear your throat (which can be harmful) immediately after eating, but waiting an hour is usually enough time for your meal to settle.
Q: How do I get my voice to warm up quickly?
A: Warm-up time varies from singer to singer and depends on four factors:
- The thickness and length of the vocal cords
- The health of the singer, i.e. allergies, physical condition, dietary and exercise habits, sleep and stress levels
- Veisel dilation – how fast the vasculature expands to receive blood flow.
- Warm-up habits
If you have thick cords, you have a stronger, fuller sounding voice (James Ingram/Elvis Presley). Thinner cords will producer a lighter, thinner tone (Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney). Think of the voice as a train. The bigger the train, the longer it takes to get moving. Keep this in mind while warming up. Warming up should be incremental and never forced. Find your vocal co-ordinations through the right exercises and then slowly build volume, speed and range. Too high, too loud, too soon is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, most singers don’t know the recipe for vocal health and longevity. This is why so many singers lose their voices. I work with hundreds of singers every year who have never properly warmed up their voices.
Veisal dilation is another important factor in warming up. Without adequate blood flow to the musculature, the cords have great difficulty warming up. Things that affect veisal dilation are fatigue, poor circulation and lack of exercise. Sometimes these are simply genetic and you deal with it by being diligent and patient with your vocal study and your warm-up time. Other times it’s just laziness, lack of discipline or a bad diet. Allergies can also affect your warm-up time because circulation and health are inhibited. Seek either a medical or natural (diet, herbs and vitamins) route to dealing with your allergies.
Q: I lose my voice when I sing live. I guess I’m pushing harder than when I practice. What should I do about this?
A: The first thing that I usually ask a singer is “how well do you hear yourself in the monitors?” Often, they are not hearing themselves sing on stage, so they figure that the audience can’t hear them sing and push their voice harder than what is natural. The result is that the tone becomes dull or strident and often intonation problems occur. Talk to your sound man and make sure that you have enough of your voice in the monitors. If you’ve got the funds, invest in a headset microphone.