There are many ideas you get into your head over the years as you are learning about technique. Many of these ideas you pick up from teachers, books, or internet resources. Although these ideas are normally well-intentioned, they unfortunately often move you farther away from your goal of building a chesty mix. This article will cover the top 11 flawed ideas I’ve found singers thinking when trying to strengthen their mix.
1. You think of the voice as chest voice, head voice, mixed voice, whistle voice, falsetto, etc.
If you think of your voice as all of these separate voices, as soon as you get to your bridge range, you’re going to be looking for something different to happen, when in reality, it doesn’t! A better approach is to simply think of the voice as ONE voice — just ONE voice which has two aspects to it. There is your real voice and your falsetto. (Yes, this applies for you ladies too.) Your real voice feels similar to your speaking voice. Put more accurately, it feels firm and solid, like when angrily scolding someone, telling them, “NO!” Falsetto feels like it comes from a totally different place. If you imitate the sound of an owl, you will likely be in falsetto. It is a sound that requires very little air pressure. You can learn to color it differently — make it brighter, make it darker, make it more pharyngeal, etc — but the base coordination is STILL falsetto.
If you stick to this simple way of looking at the voice, you know immediately when you have stopped using your real voice and you’re faking it with your falsetto. This is the approach many of you use to navigate your first bridge. You will start out in your real voice (what you call your chest voice), then after a certain point, you feel like you need to transition or blend. When you do this, you can feel that you’re no longer in your real voice. You can FEEL it in your body. You can get very good at disguising this, which is what you’ve learned to do in lessons over the years by lightening up and shifting the resonances, but a trained ear can hear you’re not in your real voice. YOU YOURSELF can feel you’re not in your real voice anymore. The fact that you don’t sound like your favorite artists further confirms it.
Here is a quick test if you’re unsure whether you’re in your real voice: If you can’t sing as loudly as you want to on a given note without everything falling apart, you’re not in your real voice!
When you build your strong, chesty mix, all of your bridge notes will feel exactly like the chest notes. It will feel like you are continuing to stretch your real voice higher and higher. A note in your first bridge won’t feel any different than a note below your first bridge. I know this is a huge paradigm shift for many of you and a rather hard pill to swallow, but you intuitively know it is true and you can feel this is what you are missing. This will only make sense once you’ve experienced it and can feel that it is possible. It just takes a different kind of approach to the voice and a different way of thinking about the sound. When you utilize your real voice correctly, you can go louder or softer, brighter or darker, but it will all still feel like your real voice! It won’t suddenly feel like you’ve shifted to falsetto (unless you want to).
2. You have insufficient cord closure.
So you tried to sing loudly one day, blew out your voice, and then came to the conclusion that you were pulling too much chest, and thus needed to back off, learn to mix better, and utilize more of your resonance. The problem here was not singing loudly, but rather HOW you were singing loudly — you did it with insufficient cord closure.
Vocal cord closure is a very important part of your vocal foundation and one of the biggest problems I find singers run into. Firm, complete closure is necessary for any type of powerful singing. The cords need to be able to very strongly resist the airflow. If they don’t, you will end up pushing excessive air through the cords, and thus blasting. A sign of strong closure is a crystal clear voice, especially as you’re singing louder. If there is any hint of airiness in the sound, you have closure problems.
In addition to helping with strong singing, firm cord closure also helps the larynx sit in the proper low position. When the cords close very energetically, your resonance will automatically increase too. (If you are trying to alter your resonance without first ensuring your cord closure is efficient, you are wasting your time.) Firm, efficient closure just makes everything about the voice much more intuitive.
3. You think you’re singing too loudly.
Most singers have a very, very skewed sense of their dynamics. What you currently think of as your “loud” volume is not really your loud volume — it’s closer to your medium volume or your medium-soft volume. When you experience your real voice in your bridge range for the first time, the first thing everyone says is, “Aren’t I singing too loudly?” The answer is always NO! You just found YOUR personal loud volume, and you will need to learn all of your other dynamics in relation to that. When you maintain your real voice in your bridge range for the first time, the sound will pour out of you in a very visceral, wild, uninhibited way. That scares you and you try to restrain the volume by lightening the voice or constricting. Neither scenario is any good, and both will impede you from developing your heavy mix.
Keep in mind, as your mix starts to grow stronger, your voice will become louder! There is no way around that! If you expect that you’re going to get a big strong mix but only have a moderate volume, then you’ve got the wrong idea and will never develop a strong mix. The more chesty you sing, the louder you will be. Period. And it will get louder as you go higher. If you fight this natural tendency, you will end up tensing.
4. You think the chesty mix should feel effortless, like doing nothing.
This fallacy comes from those who are used to approaching the voice from a falsetto place, not a real voice set up. When you vocalize in falsetto (or any derivative thereof), it does not require much air pressure at all. This makes it very easy to sing and sustain, requiring very little energy; this feels effortless.
In contrast, when you use your real voice, you are working with higher air pressure, and sometimes very high air pressures. This necessitates an engagement of the body which you will not find in falsetto based sounds. THIS WILL FEEL VERY PHYSICAL! Your entire body will engage under the sound. Singing in your real voice is a full body experience. It takes a certain athleticism within the body to pull this off. Most of you will have to build up the physical stamina to sing in your real voice all the time for an entire show. Now, this shouldn’t wear out your throat at all, but in the early stages of development, it can be very tiring to your body (i.e. your back, lower abs, thighs, etc.).
5. You are disconnected from your body.
This is an extension of the previous point. You sing from what I call the chest up — that is, you use your physical chest, neck, and jaw to carry the sound. Instead, you should have your entire trunk engaged under you. You should feel the pressure mostly being contained in your abdominal cavity. You will feel your lower abs, your obliques, your lower back, your lats, all of your back muscles, your glutes, and even your hamstrings involved when you produce sound. When you produce sound in this manner, it prevents excess air pressure from building up underneath your cords, and instead, distributes the energy throughout your body, especially to the bigger muscles lower in the trunk that are designed for handling high pressure.
6. You take a high breath.
I’m sure you all know that you don’t want to take a high, chest breath. But, what is the first thing I see someone do when trying to sing chesty? They take a big chest breath, even though they know better. The reason is most of you were not taught how to breathe from the diaphragm correctly. Or put a better way, you learned how to breathe from the diaphragm, but only in isolated instances. As long as the air pressure is low, you know how to breathe from your diaphragm and not take a chest breath. But, when the air pressure increases, all hell breaks loose. Why? No one taught you how to still breathe from the diaphragm when dealing with the very high air pressures needed for intense, chesty singing.
There is a very specific technique for working with high air pressures which most teachers either don’t know or don’t teach. When you take in a big breath of air, one of two types of pressures increases: intra-thoracic pressure or intra-abdominal pressure. Intra-thoracic pressure is pressure which is felt in your physical chest, in the cavity of the rib cage above the diaphragm. This is felt most prominently at the top of the chest and bottom of the throat. If you intentionally take a breath into your chest and then hold your breath, you should feel a lot of pressure in this area. It will probably feel tense in your neck and chest. You felt this pressure in your throat just from taking in a breath and not even making a sound! Now, imagine what that kind of tension would do to your throat if you tried vocalizing with it. Not good.
Intra-abdominal pressure, on the other hand, is pressure that builds up in your abdominal cavity — basically anything below the diaphragm and down to the pelvis. To experience this, lie face DOWN on the floor and then inhale, feeling your belly expand against the floor. After you finish inhaling, hold your breath. You should feel most of the air pressure is being contained in your abdominal cavity — the part that is pressing against the floor. The neck, chest, and shoulder area should feel relatively relaxed. Now, there is more that goes into finding the correct intra-abdominal pressure than this, but it’s a relatively crude example so that you can feel the difference each way of breathing has on your throat. When you increase intra-abdominal pressure, you actually engage the diaphragm more strongly.
7. You don’t open your mouth enough.
The louder you sing, the more the mouth will want to open, especially on an open vowel like AH (as in “father”) or AA (as in “cat”). If you try to keep the mouth too closed, you will actually constrict the jaw and engage the suprahyoid muscles (the muscles at the top of the neck, right above the hyoid bone). When these muscles tense, your throat will get tense, causing you to strain. You might have experienced this sometime when trying to sing louder and you felt your throat tensing. So, you backed off the volume and narrowed the vowel, and then concluded the discomfort was because you were singing too chesty and splatty.
A normal, healthy voice should be able to sing a wide open AH through the top of the middle range without discomfort in the throat. This AH should still maintain the same quality as the notes before it. If you cannot do this, then you have a fundamental flaw in your technique! You have been using your jaw and/or suprahyoid muscles to keep the sound in check.
8. You narrow the vowel incorrectly.
“Narrowing” the vowel is a crutch that you have learned to transition from chest voice to head voice. It makes the voice easier to control as a beginner; however, it will not help you with your chesty sound. The more chesty you sing, the more the vowel is going to want to open up, and the more the mouth will have to open.
The vowels still can narrow if you stay in your real voice, however, it happens differently than how you were taught in your lessons. It has very little to do with barely opening your mouth or just changing the vowel; instead, it is all about how you shape the back of the throat. So, if you’re singing an AY vowel (as in “pay”) and you need to narrow it, you don’t just outright change the vowel to IH or EE; instead, you shape the back of the throat as if you’re going to sing a French U but still try to pronounce AY with the mouth. That will cause the vowel to narrow correctly, and you will stay in your real voice.
9. You think chest voice is your normal speaking voice.
I know a lot of people define your chest voice as your speaking voice; some define it as feeling vibrations in your chest. NEITHER WAY OF THINKING WILL HELP YOU SING IN A CHESTY MIX!!!
I define chest voice on a muscular function level. It is a state in which the deepest layers of the cords come into vibration. This comes from strongly activating the vocalis muscle, the muscle which comprises the bulk of the vocal cord. Air pressure and the intent to make a firm, clear sound is what activates this musculature. The range in which you normally speak (which would correspond to your low range) cannot handle a lot of air pressure; thus, you are not using very much “chest voice” musculature in your speaking voice. On top of that, most people don’t even attempt to engage the chest voice musculature when they speak.
Where chest voice really becomes active is when you call out to someone to get their attention. Imagine someone is standing 50 feet away from you and you want to call out to them to say, “Hey, come over here!”….. Well, that’s your chest voice (as long as you’re not airy when you do it). Another example of chest activating is when you are very annoyed and you’re scolding someone. In both of these cases, the pitch of your voice will rise much higher than your normal speaking voice and you will use more air pressure than your normal speaking voice. This is the domain of your chest voice!
10. You sing too brightly.
Most singers attempt to emphasize the bright resonance — that forward, masky resonance — much more than what their voice naturally wants. While you can get away with this if singing lightly, it creates problems when you’re trying to go for a more chesty mix. In a chesty mix, the sound tends to go a little darker — not so dark that it sounds woofy, but a bit darker and deeper than you are accustomed to.
When you overexaggerate the forward, pharyngeal sound, you normally do it by raising the larynx too much and limiting the amount you open the mouth. The suprahyoid muscles above the larynx tend to overengage, which prevents the throat from becoming as supple as it could be. Combatting this problem is not as simple as lowering the larynx; you have to completely change your mental concept of the sound. If you are still thinking your normal sound but attempting to sing more chesty, you will fail. Your throat will just get more and more tight as you ascend, and the cords will overcompress. To fix this problem, you have to change your mental concept of the sound in addition to a little work on your breathing.
11. You fear you will damage your voice.
This is probably the biggest reason why singers fail to sing in a stronger mix. You are afraid that if you sing with a little more chest or a little more air pressure, you’re going to damage your voice. You’re afraid that the little tickle you felt when you did one note the wrong way means you just did permanent damage to your voice.
Well, here is the reality of the situation. When you’re learning to strengthen your mix and stretch your real voice throughout your range, you WILL do it wrong AT FIRST. For you perfectionists out there, there is no way of getting around this. It’s just like learning to ride a bike — you had to fall off a million times before you learned to do it right. Falling (and in the case of singing, a little discomfort initially) is part of the learning process. Now, this does not mean continue to do it wrong again and again and again. That would be foolish. But don’t be afraid of doing it wrong once or twice while you are LEARNING. If you are fearful, ironically, you will constrict your voice — your jaw will tighten, your tongue will tense, your diaphragm will freeze up, and your body as a whole will lock up.
Fear takes time to overcome. You have to convince your mind and body that there is no threat present in what you are doing. That is no easy task! For that reason, you need to take things slowly. If you’re a guy and can only keep your real voice up to the D4, then why sit there and risk vocal damage by continuing to attempt high C after high C? What would be more realistic and more productive for you is to try singing a half step or whole step higher than you already can, getting those notes as comfortable as possible before moving on.
A Question for YOU
After having gone through this list of misconceptions, which of them are you most guilty of? Leave your response in the comments section below the article.