Singing 101: Pitch Problems

Sharp, Flat, Just Right.

I’ve coined a phrase with my students when we’re working on vocal technique and I’m trying to get them to find a balance-point, or middle-ground with finessing whatever it is we’re working on: Goldilocks That Shit.

Need some context? Sure! What I mean when I say this is that there’s a delicate balancing act in almost all elements of singing: not holding the breath nor overblowing it, being free + relaxed yet active + engaged, engaging the vocal cords to produce an engaged, balanced tone, while also ensuring we’re keeping the vocal tract (throat, palates, mouth, you get the gist) open and resonant. Sometimes, I’ve found that when a student is trying to correct a certain element of their singing or fix a bad habit that we’re working on, they tend to overcorrect, and go a little too far to the opposite end of the spectrum. For example: someone who has a very breathy tone might try to overcompensate when made aware of this by starting to push or squeeze, resulting in a more “pinched” sound. This is when I tell them: Goldilocks That Shit. As in, find the justright place or sound, and sing from there.

Hey, my brain works in mysterious ways.

One of the most important parts of singing - and spots that can lead to the biggest insecurities - is pitch, and problems with matching pitch. I have a lot of people come through my door who are fearful and worried that they aren’t singing the right notes in songs, are worried they are chronically “off-key” and feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and self-conscious by both the not-knowing as well as the not-knowing-how to fix it. In this installment of Singing 101, I want to address this and offer some answers/insight/reassurance, as well as some tools for relaxing into and improving pitch problems. Shall we get started?!

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What Is Pitch? + How We Create Pitch

First of all, before we get all scientific here, I want to stress that MOST pitch problems have absolutely nothing to do with you being tone-deaf. Go ahead, let out a big sigh of relief. The concept of “tone-deafness” is vastly misunderstood and thrown around in our culture by people who don’t actually know what they’re talking about. Being truly tone-deaf is actually quite rare, and is an actual cognitive impairment called amusia - this impairment means that the brain cannot process musical sounds or make sense of them. Again, breathe easy here babies! Researchers have found that less than 5% of people actually have this condition so, chances are, you are not actually tone-deaf. Which means you are not “hopeless", which means: you can train yourself to hear and sing your notes in key! Glory hallelujah! When people say someone is “tone deaf” we mean that they can’t tell musical notes apart, and may have a hard time knowing if they are singing the right, or wrong, note when they are singing; since they have difficulty distinguishing between notes, they will undoubtedly make some mistakes while singing - all of which compounds this idea that we lack some sort of magical skill that is reserved for those who are “born with it.” The truth is, perceiving and distinguishing pitch is a skill that can, and needs to be, developed and trained. Most pitch problems are a matter of lack of ear training (teaching oneself how to hear and differentiate between pitches), and, largely in my experience of teaching, an improperly-placed voice.

So, what the hell is “pitch” anyway?!

We create pitch (or sing a certain note) by our vocal cords pulling to different pitch openings. Each pitch, or note, has its own frequency - depending on how taut or slack our cords are, they will vibrate at different rates of speed - longer, slower vibrations create a lower frequency, or our low notes, and faster vibrations create a higher frequency, or our high notes. Basically, we vary pitch, like tuning an instrument, by controlling the tension of muscles moving across vocal cords in the larynx (voicebox - see my Singing 101: How The Voice Works article for a quick + dirty overview). Our brains control this movement without us being aware of it. So, that’s the good news: our voices, like every other system in our bodies, knows how to work itself without our input or involvement. The issue then, of course, becomes us getting involved with this process.

As we hear pitches, our brains process the frequency, and our ears process the frequency. However, with vocals, matching that pitch that we hear with our ears becomes a little bit tricky because 1) we haven’t trained our ears + voices to work together to process AND then accurately reproduce that same pitch 2) we haven’t trained our voices how to properly APPROACH our pitches, and will likely default to what feels most comfortable/obvious to us (pushing our speaking voices to try to create the pitch, for example), and 3) we then start THINKING about the pitch, getting nervous that we have no idea how to reproduce the pitch, which causes further physical tension (thus affecting your instrument - see where I’m going here?), which causes us to hit the wrong pitch, which then causes us to beat ourselves up and declare ourselves tone-deaf, hopeless singers. Whew! It’s a whole vicious cycle now, isn’t it?! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: singing, using our voices, is one of the most personal, and vulnerable pieces of ourselves. It makes sense we’re hesitant to open them up and let them fully out. Furthermore, since singing, more so than any other instrument, is viewed as an inherent “maybe she’s born with it” type of trait, we allow very little room for error with ourselves. We conclude we’re awful singers, which leads to more and more tension and tensing when we sing, which leads to more and more bad singing habits as a means of trying to “get it right.”

So, the good news! Are you ready for some good news now?! The good news, if you’ve caught on by now is that singing is 100% a teachable skill. We just have to do a little training + trust the process.

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The Process

So what, exactly is “the process”, you ask?

The first step of the process, as I see it, is remembering that we need to be kind and patient with ourselves as we’re embarking on this journey of working on pitch problems. Pitch, just like any other skill, might be easier for some people than it is for others - but beating yourself up about it ain’t gonna help matters or magically transform anything. So, be kind to yourself.

Be curious, and to trust the process. I know, it’s all very Fight Club here now. But it really is important: try, if you can, to suspend judgment, or frustration, any of the mean/not helpful/destructive comments anyone else (or yourself!) has said to you about your singing; even any of the good-natured (but often quite hurtful) jokes about being “tone-deaf.” Try to allow yourself to trust yourself and your ability to match pitch. I find that most students, given a safe space and a kind/curious/non-judgmental person to help guide them through this, respond really quickly and improve in their pitch amazingly once they are aware of what matching-pitch feels like, and have a few positive experiences doing it successfully.

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Feeling vs. Thinking

Feeling is such an important part of singing - not just in the sense of conveying emotions, but I mean quite literally feeling: where we are tensing in our bodies (and impeding our own sound / tone production) as we sing, where we are resonating or “placing” our voices (see my Singing 101: Placement article for more on the wonderful world of vocal placement! My favorite thing!), where we want to approach from for any given phrase we’re singing.

Repeat after me!: We want to stop “intellectualizing” pitch, and try to start feeling pitch instead. I mean this very literally! I ask the same question to every single person who has ever walked into my studio having issues with pitch, and that is: “Are you thinking about the pitch, like intellectually trying to THINK yourself to the right pitch right now?” They always invariably say yes, and then we invariably get to the point where we admit that if we really think about it, we really have no reference for the pitch they’re trying so hard to THINK themselves to. Since “perfect pitch” is also quite rare (more on this in a second), most of us have what we call “relative pitch". But, if we have nothing to sing relative to, then we’re just sort of feeling around in the dark of an unfamiliar room, and then beating ourselves up for not being able to find the light. At this point, I like to try something different - instead of thinking about the pitch, I ask the student to try to “turn off” their brain and instead try to trust their ears and bodies. I have them close their eyes (cutting off visual stimulation, and allowing them to go “within” a little more), and do one of two things:

1) I play a pitch and ask them to simply listen and hear the note around them. Then, I play it again and ask them to listen, take their time, hum it quietly to themselves, and then allow themselves to sing it a little more loudly on whatever vowel sound (or continuing the hum) feels most comfortable to them.

2) I have them sing or hum a pitch that feels comfortable to them, and then I try to “meet them” here, by singing and finding the note on the piano or keyboard.

Once we’re in the same place, and I’ve gotten them to just match one pitch, they’re already feeling a little more at-ease; still maybe a bit guarded and nervous, but a little more hopeful. At this point, I tell them to really pay attention to how it feels as they are singing this pitch, in-tune, along with the keyboard. I ask them if they can sense the resonance between their voice and the keyboard. I may even ask them to describe it for me, or imagine how they’d explain it to someone else. Just bringing your awareness to these things, the subtle sensations and senses or feelings, that you may not even realize were things to BE aware of, seems to help in singing across the board a great deal. This is all designed to get them to feel what it’s like to be singing the right pitch. Then - and this part is crucial - I tell them to stay singing this same pitch, and that I’m going to play a different pitch, so that they can feel what it feels like to sing the wrong pitch. I will typically simply step down a half-step while they’re holding their note, which usually immediately causes the student to adjust their pitch, reflexively, to match the one I’m playing. This is when they really get what it feels like - on a very intuitive level - to be singing “off” the pitch. Cueing the body and ear like this is a really important step to helping the student build confidence in trust in their ear - especially highlighting that when they were “wrong” they immediately, instinctively, “fixed it.” In this way, by mimicing the “wrong” way, you can gut check yourself and start to identify what it means to be “sharp” (too high) or “flat” (too low), so you can start to fine-tune your ear and ability to match the pitch more accurately.

After this, I’ll get them to follow me up and down and through their voices, and - voila! - they’re matching pitch and feeling a huge sense of relief, and also better about themselves + their voice = an important first step to any singing study.

The Approach: Placement + Pitch Issues

As mentioned above, sometimes the issue of matching pitch is about an untrained ear, or lack of experience, which will benefit from singing scales on a regular basis, and practicing singing along with a keyboard or pre-recorded scale, trying to be cognizant of when one is or is not matching the pitch. Often I find at first that simply singing along with scales several times a week will start to improve someone’s pitch just by virtue of them doing it more frequently and practicing using their voice in this way.

Other times, it’s not so much about an inability to hear the correct pitch, but is simply about the approach.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Vocal Placement, I highly recommend you read through my Singing 101: Placing the Voice Properly article to get an overview of what it is. But, in a nutshell, the way we “approach” our notes in our different registers can sometimes make or break our ability to sing the pitches correctly.

A common occurrence of this is obviously when singing a song and we can’t quite seem to reach a given note or notes, resulting in us singing the wrong note, either sharp, or flat. What I hear very frequently in singers that have issues with pitch is that they aren’t switching registers properly - either down into the Chest Voice, or allowing their voices to “break over” into their Mix or Head Voice. I find that a fair amount of singers have a bit of a mental block against allowing their voices to “switch” - there’s this pervasive, and frankly, problematic, notion in popular culture that says the voice needs to sound like “one register all the way up.” This could not be further from the truth. This is not only physiologically incorrect, but encourages really unhealthy singing habits wherein singers are constantly trying to “muscle” their chest voices all the way up through their range - resulting in a lot of physical strain, tension, poor singing habits, and sounds that they don’t want. Remember, the vocal mechanism is supposed to shift registers - and it’s really important that we start to identify which register we’re singing in at any given time. This is especially important in contemporary music - we’re not talking classical music here, people! In classical genres or choirs, singers are typically separated out into a section depending on their voice type (see my Singing 101: Vocal Typing article for more on this!), which means they’re maybe more likely to stay largely in one register over another. But we’re singing contemporary stuff here, babies! That means, we’re likely going to be using our whole voices throughout the course of even one song - making our flexibility to switch between registers quickly and easily very important when we’re singing. So, getting familiar with your different registers - Chest, Mix, and Head Voice - and what each feels like, will be an important first part of your vocal work. (Again, more on this in my Singing 101: Range & Registers article).

Listen up. Here’s an important, easy, simple rule of thumb I want you to remember:

If it feels like you are reaching, straining, or hitting a ceiling while trying to sing a note, you need to shift registers. You need to think more in the Mix or Head Voice, or think of singing the note from a higher place.

More often than not, I find that people are not allowing their voices to shift registers into the Mix or Head Voice, which results in them pushing, reaching, squeezing, and straining to reach the notes. Many singers can sense that something isn’t quite right, and they can also feel or sense the “switch” as the vocal cords switch between registers. It will feel like a little “click” in your throat or neck; or you’ll sense the need for your voice to shift “upward.” This is your cue to approach the notes from a different, higher register, to switch your mental visualization of the note to help you physically access your Mix or Head Voice registers. The problem is, a lot of people feel this shift and think they’re doing something wrong or incorrect - or incorrectly identify the register shift as a “crack” when all it is is the natural extension of the tone getting a little lighter (as it should as you sing higher!) as you shift registers. Repeat after me: register shifts are supposed to happen! This is absolutely what you want your voice to do - so, as usual, listen to, and trust your body. The voice is working as it should - the problem, again, comes from us trying to fight it.

So, next time you are singing a song and you feel like you aren’t quite hitting the right notes - especially if it’s in a slightly higher place - try approaching it from a different place. Try singing it a little lighter, or floatier, and see how it feels then.

When people make this shift, I often hear one other concern: they are worried that the resulting sound is too “light” or “weak”. To that, I say that it very well may be that the resulting note IS weaker, or lighter - but all this means is that it simply needs to be strengthened. Our Head Voice, especially, needs to be able to work, to do some “heavy lifting” without interference from the Chest Voice, in order to strengthen and produce more of the tone we ultimately want. The problem is, the Chest Voice muscles will ALWAYS overpower the Head Voice muscles by virtue of them being bigger + bulkier; we need to “bench” the Chest Voice for a little bit to ensure that the Head Voice muscles have a chance to work and get equally as strong, if we want to have a strong Head Voice + high notes. So, while it may result in a lighter, or weaker, sound for the time being, it’s really important that we continue to sing up here properly, so that the notes CAN get stronger. Trust the process, remember?

Another source of confusion is when the notes are a little higher - but not quite so high that we’re in our full Head Voices. This is - you’ve probably guessed it by now! - your Mixed Voice, and has been the bane of many a singer’s existence. The Mixed Voice is confusing because we don’t always know where exactly to “put it” - it’s not low enough to feel like full Chest Voice, nor high enough to feel like full Head Voice. If we’re not really attuned to our register shifts, and allowing our voices to get thinner as we ascend higher, we might miss the cue to shift our placement a little higher, maybe more in the Mask area of our faces (eyes/nose/cheekbones), and instead just keep muscling through with the Chest Voice. My advice when singing in the Mix, especially at first, is to err on the side of more towards the Head Voice - again, the more chance we give our Head Voice muscles to work, the more it will benefit us in the long-run. I promise you, I am with you in wanting you to be able to belt these notes, and deliver them strong, and big, and not “light” - but we’ve gotta work up to it first! These are steps that can’t be short-cut or skipped, so again: trust that process.

Next time you’re singing a song and having trouble with the pitches, try to see if it could simply be a matter of your approach to the notes. Ask yourself:

1) WHERE the note or phrase sits in your voice (do you feel it more at mouth-level? In the top of your head, forehead, or temples? Or maybe more in the middle, around the eyes, nose, or cheeks?)

2) if you can try to approach it from a different place than you’re singing it in

See what results! Another helpful check on this is to record yourself and play the role of the listener while listening back. Remember the really-fun sneaky bit about Acoustic Perception, and how it sometimes warps our perception of our voices as we’re singing, since we’re listening in our own skulls? Sometimes, simply listening back outside of your own skull can be really illuminating. I sometimes tell people to record themselves singing a note or phrase two different ways - Option A or Option B - and to notice the resulting pitch/tone/overall sound. More often than not, our high notes will be pleasantly surprising upon listening back - stronger-sounding than we may perceive them to be when we are hearing them in our own skulls. So, be curious! Play around, experiment, hell, do it the “wrong way” a couple times and compare and contrast. As long as you’re being gentle and not pushing or straining (you know what not to do, so don’t you do it!), you can take some liberties and see what results.

Pitch vs. Tone

A quick note on pitch versus tone that I want to make. Sometimes what we are hearing, when we’re not happy with a certain pitch we’re singing, really isn’t “pitch” at all. It’s tone. Think of the difference this way: Pitch is like the color (red, blue, green, marigold - my favorite), and Tone is the specific shade (warm, cool, light, dark, bold, soft, breathy, pinched, clear, gravelly, you get the idea). Sometimes what we are not loving is simply the tone we are getting - we can be singing the correct pitch, but in a way that doesn’t quite resonant as nicely as another tone might. Here, getting really specific with yourself (again, be kind!) about what it is you want to hear more or less of: is the tone too breathy? Too strident? Pinched? Too light? Too heavy? Shoutey? This way, you can maybe tweak the way you are delivering the note to make it more to your liking - and to make it sound a little “correct” or “balanced”.

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Perfect Pitch vs. Relative Pitch + A Note on Perfection

People who come in with pitch problems are usually very curious about the concept of perfect pitch, but I find that this also warrants an explanation. Let me let you in on a secret: “perfect pitch,” much like amusia, is also a rare auditory phenomenon, just on the other end of the spectrum. Perfect pitch, or “absolute pitch,” is a phenomenon wherein a person can identify or reproduce a given musical note or pitch without a reference note. Some of the characteristics of perfect pitch include some or all of the following:

Identify by name individual pitches (e.g. F♯, A, G, C) played on various instruments

Name the key of a given piece of tonal music

Reproduce a piece of tonal music in the correct key days after hearing it

Identify and name all the tones of a given chord or other tonal mass

Accurately sing a named pitch

Name the pitches of common everyday sounds such as car horns and alarms

Name the frequency of a pitch (e.g. that G♯4 is 415Hz) after hearing it

Impressive, yeah?! Yeah….it is pretty cool, and a rare skill to have as a musician, for sure. We’ve all hoped for “perfect” pitch at some point or another but the truth of the matter is that most musicians have relative pitch., meaning most of us need some sort of reference pitch to use as a jumping-off point. This can be trained, of course, and some musicians can train themselves to have almost-perfect relative pitch; but, the important thing to remember is that since most musicians (including those you know and love) don’t have perfect pitch, this is in no way reflective of, or a precursor to, musical talent or ability.

I promise you this, absolutely.

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Singers = Not Robots

Not to get all philosophical here (okay, who am I kidding, that’s exactly what I’m about to do, as I’m wont to do; y’all know how we do at Caveness Voice), but what do we know about perfection? That shit is a fallacy, pure and simple. Sure, it’d be great to never, ever, ever have to worry about pitch; as singers, not only are we constantly and in-the-moment creating, quite literally, the shape + sound of our instrument, but we’re dealing with an ever-changing landscape since our instruments live inside our bodies. How much stress, sleep, food, drinks, or what have you that we’ve gotten, how much we can hear ourselves, if we’re sick or the weather is a certain way, all make a difference in how we sound on any given day. While of course we need to be cognizant of, and striving for, correct pitch when singing, I think we also need to remember that singers are not robots. We are human beings, with a very temperamental instrument, sensitive and subject to a wide range of factors that other instruments just simply are not. I’d take a guttural, raw, wrenching performance over a perfect, smooth, sterile one any day of the week - sometimes, slight imperfections or flaws are the very things that make a piece of music or art so beautiful, so meaningful, so raw, so human. Please don’t misunderstand me: work on your pitch. No one wants to hear a sloppy performance. But don’t castigate yourself in the name of perfection. If you’re a shade off while going for a big, wrenching, belty note, but you’re delivering a blistering performance; if you’re so nervous and uptight and miserable every time you go to sing, robbing yourself of the joy of something you love because someone said unkind things to you about your singing voice; if you’re hyper-focused on this one aspect of singing at the neglect of the more nuanced, expressive pieces; in my professional opinion, I say: fuck. it.

The reason the voice is such an expressive, dynamic, emotional instrument is because it is human. It lives inside of us, and with that, it is inextricably linked to all our deepest desires, and insecurities, our passions, our struggles, all of it. Let your voice be a vehicle for your expression of the kaleidoscope of your inner landscape - learning to trust your voice, learning to accept your voice, learning to be honest with it and work on it where it needs to be improved without judging or berating or being unkind - these are lessons not just of the voice, but of the human experience.

Singing 101: Breathing!

Singing 101: Breathing!

Demystifying The Diaphragm + Tips for Better Breath Support

Ahh, Breathing.

It seems to be THE central focus of so many of our conversations about singing, and yet I find that most people who come into my studio admit to being pretty damn perplexed, and completely mystified, as to what “breath support” really means, and how to do it properly. Isn’t it kind of hilariously ironic that the ONE piece of singing that should be the easiest, the ONE piece we’re already doing all the damn time, all day every day, is such a source of confusion? It’s talked about incessantly, and yet, most people seem completely in the dark about what breath support really means, what the role of the diaphragm is in singing (what the hell IS the diaphragm anyway?!), and how breathing can help or hinder our singing. So, let’s demystify all this breathing-and-diaphragm talk, mmkay?

I’m here to blow your mind, people. Pun intended. Okay, sorry. Let’s forget I did that.

Singing Breathing + The Diaphragm = Diaphragmatic Breathing

For a quick + dirty overview / in-depth breakdown of how the vocal mechanism works, please go here and read my post on How The Voice Works. At its essence, singing is the balance of our breath/airflow, to the muscle tension of our vocal cords pulling to different pitch openings.

Let’s start by talking about the Diaphragm. I’m sure you’ve heard all kinds of talk about “singing from the diaphragm” or “the belly,” or “breathing from the diaphragm” - you know it’s important, somehow, but you have no clue what it is or what it’s doing. The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle that sits at the base of the lungs, right beneath our sternums, and is the most efficient muscle aiding in the process of breathing. Note that I did not say that we breathe into our diaphragms (the air is, of course, going into our lungs, correct?). For singing, we want to use this muscle to help us, and so we position our breathing a bit lower than we might normally find ourselves breathing in everyday life. Do me a favor: go stand in front a mirror and take an inhale. Now take another and observe for me what moved when you inhaled. Did your chest and shoulders rise up as you inhaled? Did your belly go in, or go out? Take a few breaths and take note of this, because it’s really important. The proper way to breathe for singing, is that on our inhales, we want our bellies + ribs to inflate, keeping the chest and shoulders down. We then want our bellies to slowly come back in and up as we exhale our air. Say it with me now:

Inhale: Belly + ribs inflate

Exhale: Belly slowly comes back in + up OR (intermediate/advanced) stays inflated until the very end

A visual + physical exercise I sometimes give people to go through here is to place their hand on their bellies, right beneath the sternum (move that hand up, yep, a littttle higher than you probably placed it. It’s not the LOW belly, so much as the diaphragm, right beneath the sternum, that we want to feel). Inhale, thinking of the ribs expanding OUT to our sides (towards our elbows), and feeling the belly inflate out, so that our hand is being pushed away from us. The chest should be relaxed, and shoulders should be relaxed down your back. So where does the diaphragm come into play in all of this? Well, the diaphragm, sitting under our sternum, is actually dropping DOWN + flattening here as we inhale, which causes our ribs + belly to expand. Why is it flattening down? Why do we give a shit about this extra piece? Don’t we have enough to worry about with singing, without having to tweak our whole way of breathing?! The reason we care is because, with the diaphragm flattened down, the lungs are being allowed some extra room to hold some extra air “in the tank” whilst at the same time letting air out in a steady stream as we sing. Let me repeat that, because I think that is an important piece: the lungs are keeping some air in reserve at the bottom, AS they let out a steady stream of air on the exhale as we sing. We’re not just inhaling and exhaling all of our air out in one big breath all at once, right? We need this air to support us through our phrase as we sing - thus, thinking of our lungs similar to if we were pouring a nice beer into a glass (beer analogies work well for me, don’t know about you): we’re not just turning the bottle upside down and dumping it all out at once. We’re gradually - but steadily! - pouring the liquid out. Our lungs, in essence, are doing the same thing: gradually - but steadily! - letting our air out on a steady, free, active exhale. This support - from the “reserve” of air in the lungs supporting the air that’s leaving, to the diaphragm flattening to support the lungs doing this, is the essence of breath support.

So, to recap: inhale, diaphragm drops, belly + ribs inflate. Exhale, steadily + freely, and the belly slowly comes back in + up, returning the diaphragm gradually back to its start position.

Now, one more thing to note: eventually, the long-term goal is to strengthen the diaphragm enough that it can stay flattened + down AS you sing, and being enough in control of your diaphragm to be able to do this, so that it doesn’t pop-up automatically when you’re doing something difficult vocally. For starters, I’d say to be aware of this idea, but not necessarily worried about it too much at first. Initially, it’s just important for you to start to practice breathing in this deeper way, and being really honest with yourself about whether you are actually using your diaphragm to breathe properly for singing (i.e. belly is inflating on the inhale, versus going in, and into the chest). You may need to practice this in a mirror so you can really see what is going on as you’re breathing. I will cover the more advanced breathing (keeping the diaphragm flattened/belly inflated AS you exhale/sing) in a later post - for now, it’s just important to get this breathing, and coordination of the breath, dialed-in so it’s more second-nature. The ironic thing about this way of breathing is that it is how we breathe naturally when we are in an ultimate relaxed state - when we are sleeping.

So, the moral of the story when it comes to breathing: let it be free, let it help you, and (even though we’ve just done A LOT of talking about it), don’t overthink it or make it more difficult than it needs to be. As with most things with singing, try to let it be a little more, and you’ll be surprised at how much less you actually need to work to achieve a better sound.

Tips for Better Breathing + Breath Support

Towards that end, I have a few tips + tricks that might help you with simplifying the whole breathing portion of singing. These are some “best practices” I like to tell all of my students to help them relax around breathing a little more, and find a more intuitive, easy way of using the breath to help their voices.

1. Don’t take a HUGE inhale to sing.

This is the first thing I say to people that blows their minds. Let’s start with feeling something, again, shall we? Take in a BIG inhale - as much air as you can possibly take in. Then, maybe even gulp in a little more. What does it feel like as soon as you’ve taken as much air in as you can? You probably REALLY need to exhale now, right? Did you let it all out, finally, in one giant gasp, hoping to find some relief? This is exactly the opposite of what we want to do when we are singing. The truth is, conventional wisdom is once again the source of a singing fallacy that we all seem to get into our heads + bodies. It seems as if, if we are trying to support our voices, and have enough air to get through a phrase, that we’d need to take in as much as air as we possibly can, to carry us through the phrase. However, the reality of what happens in our bodies is, again, the opposite of what we want when we sing. When we take in as much air as our bodies and lungs can hold, it places an inordinate amount of air pressure underneath our vocal cords. Remember the piece where I said singing is about a balance between our breath/airflow + our vocal cords? Well, our vocal cords are pretttttty small. They do a lot of heavy lifting (god, they are SUCH champs!) - but they are small. They are about the size of a dime in women, a nickel for men. So. Putting SO much air pressure underneath them, in an unnatural way like this (who takes in a HUGE inhale to speak? Probably none of you, ever. And if you are - maybe check in with this in your speaking voice, too), will cause you to need to relieve this pressure in one of two ways: either by squeezing/holding the air back = holding the breath, or else will cause us to push/force the air out = overblowing the breath. Neither falls under the umbrella of a relaxed, steady stream of airflow, now does it?

Moral of the story: stop taking in air as if you’re about to swim the length of an Olympic-sized swimming pool on a single breath. You don’t do it to speak; don’t do it when you sing.

A normal, conversational breath (maybe a teeny bit bigger if you know you have a long phrase) should be more than sufficient to get you through a singing phrase. 

2. No holding breath BEFORE you start singing.

This one, dear singers, is probably the NUMBER ONE most pesky breathing habit I think I see in people. It drives people crazy because they a) never realize it’s even a thing to be aware of and b) when they are made aware of it, it seems like the natural thing to do, to “prepare” to sing: take in a HUGE inhale, and then HOLD IT. That’s right, y’all: #1 + #2 loooove to work together to impede our singing! The reason we don’t want to hold before we start to exhale/sing, is the same reason as above: it just places too much air pressure beneath our sweet little vocal cords. I liken this habit to running and building up momentum and then stopping short right before jumping over a body of water you’re trying to get across. It makes zero sense to halt all the momentum you just gained and then make the job even harder for yourself! So, what do we want to instead? What we want to do instead is take a (normal) inhale, and then simply start singing right at the tail-end of the inhaled breath. It’s a very free, circular sort of motion, the exhale simply a continuation of the inhale. Sometimes I tell people to think “air in, sound out” all as one seamless motion, to get them to break this habit. Or another visual is the idea of the surf coming in + out on the shore of a beach - the water flows in, and immediately flows back out, without break or stopping. Pick either one to visualize in your mind and see if it helps you relax a little into a more natural rhythm.

A special note for Breathy Singers: the “holding” right before coming in to sing (particularly in Head Voice) is a common culprit in causing our overly-breathy tone. When I am working with someone on strengthening a breathy tone I usually start right here, with checking out that moment between the end of the inhale and when someone starts to sing. If you hold your breath, even for a split second, it is too long. I can’t stress it enough: you want to inhale and then come RIGHT IN, at the very top of your inhaled breath, and not a moment later. Again, when we hold, we build up air pressure under the cords, which can cause them to open up too much to allow the air out that’s built up unnaturally underneath them. Our vocal cords being too far apart = breathy tone. If the cords aren’t vibrating against one another (where they want to be), and are too far apart, we hear more breath coming through than tone. So if you’re looking to strengthen a breathy tone (particularly in Head Voice!), check out this piece - it might be the small tweak you need to overcome that breathy tone, simply by coming into your first note a split second sooner than you think you “should.”

3. No Holding Air / No Overblowing Air.

This one seems obvious, though I still find so many singers are either holding their air as they sing to “conserve” + “get through” the phrase they are singing, or else they are overblowing their air by pushing it out in a misguided attempt to “support” with their breath. Again, neither of these falls under the umbrella of relaxed, supportive, + natural. Remember! The breath is here to help, not hinder. We don’t need to make this any more complicated than it is. The airflow should simply be a stready stream of air exhaling freely. Nothing more, nothing less.

You might be asking yourself, “Well, how MUCH air should I be sending out? Who’s going to measure that out if not for me, lady?!” To that, I have some good news! Your trusty vocal cords are in charge of measuring out exactly how much air they need. So, you can take that off of your plate! As long as you are taking proper inhales + breathing out freely, the vocal cords will do the rest. It really isn’t for you to “monitor” beyond the pieces we outlined above. Glory hallelujah.

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So there you have it, my darlings. Ultimately, I’m of the belief that Breathing should be the easiest part of singing: after all, you’re already doing it(!), all the time. The reason vocalists and vocal teachers obsess over our (and your) breathing is because we’re actually trying to help you return it to a more relaxed, natural state. If you feel like your breathing in everyday life and/or as it relates to your speech isn’t the healthiest (i.e. you notice you tend to hold your breath or overblow it when speaking, for example), then this is a great time to start practicing these better breathing practices, as you’re going through your day and talking to people. The great part about this is that it’s a win-win: you’re practicing your breathing and building better habits while you’re going about the things you already do every day. Add in some dedicated time to sit down in front of a mirror and really focus on this breathing, and you’ll be well on your way to healthier breathing that is actually supporting your voice, which is what it’s there to do anyway. Breathing practice + mindfulness is also a classic relaxation/grounding/centering + meditation practice, that aids in relaxation and lower stress in all areas of our lives.

At the end of the day, singing is (or should be!) natural and free. Never lose sight, when you get confused and overwhelmed and frustrated with your voice, of taking a deep breath and going back to the basics. Remember that at the root of vocal “rules” and “tips” is really just an urging to return to a free, natural, and relaxed state. Err on the side of that, and you’ll be in a good place. 

<3

My Students Do Rad Things: Sadie

First things first: my student Sadie is way cooler than me. She’s also just started high school and has already released an EP and a single “Supposed To Be” with her best friend (and also a former student of mine!), Quinn, under Sadie and Quinn. She’s way cooler than me.

Earlier this summer, Sadie released her newest three-song EP, produced by my amazing soul-sister Katie Day, and recorded + mixed by Scott McDowell at Hyde Street Studios. So many badass/talented musicians played on this girl’s record - she’s so cool.

Check out Youniverse by Sadie and remember: she’s cooler than all of us.

My Students Do Rad Things: Baird & Beluga

So excited for my longtime voice student, Michael Downing, on his first single release with his new project, Baird & Beluga. I inherited Michael from my dear friend Jasmine of SongRise Studios, who worked with Michael for years before handing him over to me for continuing vocal work. Michael is such a talented, awesome dude, and this new duo layers gorgeous harmonies over beautiful, heartfelt songs. So proud to share their debut single, produced + mixed by my longtime musical collaborator, Scott McDowell of Hyde Street Studios.

So much community vibes, I love it! <3

Sweet Thangs: Student Review from Yoonha J.

So proud of my girl Yoonha J., who came to me as basically a beginner and left a STAR.

Yoonha absolutely brought down the house at the last Caveness showcase, and has finally released her debut single with her project, Nabi Air, titled “I Already Judged You.” It’s pretty cool, vibey, electronic vibes and I recommend you take a listen here.

Here’s what Yoonha had to say about her time at Caveness <3

“Tracey is an amazing teacher, and I'm forever grateful for how much she's helped me! She was my first voice teacher ever when I decided to get serious about music, and as someone who's never taken a voice lesson before, I was excited but scared about starting this journey. Tracey was super supportive and not only helped me build the foundational knowledge necessary but also helped me build enough confidence to perform in front of people. Highly recommend scheduling your first lesson with her if you're interested in improving your singing skills :)”

Singing 101: Heavy Lifting!: The Muscles That Control Your Vocal Cords

If you were to do a quick Google search about singing, you'd likely see a lot of information of varying degrees of clarity/accuracy talking about breathing and "singing from your diaphragm" (which is a particular pet peeve of mine, as it is a fallacy - you do NOT sing from your diaphragm). Or using breath support to "get out" your high notes. Or some other absolutely unhealthy ideas requiring you to tense up, push your voice out, and continue to be in a vicious cycle of pushing more, and liking the results less. 

Because here's the secret: it's not about breathing. Well, not all of it anyway. Let's do a quick & dirty overview once more of how the vocal mechanism works. (For a longer, dorkier read on this particular topic, see my Singing 101 post about How The Voice Works).

When you go to sing, you inhale a new breath in, and your diaphragm (a sheet of muscle and tendon located beneath your sternum) drops down (this is why your belly inflates out). As your air passes between the closed vocal cords, they vibrate against one another, creating sound. That sounds then travels through the Pharynx (my favorite piece of vocal physiology, whoop whoop, nerd alert) and resonates in the throat, mouth, nasal cavity, face, chest, and skull to amplify the sound, and it then travels out of your mouth and into the ears of the listener. Beautiful, ain't it?!

Now. I bet there was a piece in there that you may not have ever even thought about. And that piece is the one we're going to focus on today: The muscles that control your vocal cords, pulling them together to create different pitches. These two muscle groups are called the Thyroid Muscles, and the Arytenoid Muscles. Oh yeah. I love these babies.

Two Muscle Groups: The Thyroid and The Arytenoid

Think of your vocal cords like a rubber band. The only thing that creates pitch is your vocal cords pulling together to a particular pitch opening, which produces a certain pitch frequency. Therefore, every note you sing has its own specific pitch opening. The pulling-together is controlled by two sets of muscles: the Thyroid muscle group, which controls your Chest Voice (low notes), and the Cricoarytenoid muscle group (I sometimes use just "Arytenoids" to refer to this muscle group), which controls your Head Voice (high notes). If you look at this diagram of your larynx or Google it yourself (I'll wait while you sort through the inevitable "Eww!"-exclamations), you'll see that the Thyroid group is located at the front of your throat, and the Arytenoids are located at the back. The more taut the vocal cords, the smaller the pitch opening, faster the pitch frequency, producing higher notes. Alternately, the looser the tension, the slower the pitch frequency, producing lower notes. As you move through your Mixed Voice, the Thyroid group needs to be less and less active, acting instead as a bracing tension whilst the Arytenoids take over the pulling up higher. So:

Thyroid Muscle Group = Chest Voice

Arytenoid Muscle Group = Head Voice

Vocal Cords.jpg

 

So, what does all this mean? It means that working these muscles mindfully via scale-work is a really important, often not-discussed piece of working on one's vocal strength and agility. In this post, we're going to talk about how to place your voice properly in Chest Voice and Head Voice, and how to sing your scales with this "rubber band" & muscle groups concept in mind to help you build more strength in your voice. 

Chest Voice = Cord Effort

When I hear an undeveloped voice, I usually hear one of two things in the singer's Chest Voice. Typically, the Chest Voice is either pushed and breathy-sounding, or else it sounds as if the voice is "stuck" in the throat - resulting in a sound sort of like the notes (especially the lowest ones) are "bottoming-out" and the singer can't quite grab the note with the cords. Both of these can be remedied through an idea called "Cord Effort." Let's go to our speaking voices for a minute. Think of saying a sentence in a very breathy, Marilyn Monroe-esque voice. Try it out. Say, "I love to sing," or something equally as cheesy and ridiculous, in a really breathy voice. Overdo it. It feels kind of yucky, doesn't it? You can probably sense your voice is sort of hollow, feels unsupported, and like you can barely get the sound out without a lot of pushing. Now, say the same sentence in a clear, engaged voice, the way you would normally speak it. Feels a lot better, now, right? You can probably feel your voice is more engaged, and while there is vocal cord effort, it doesn't feel like you had to push, per se, to make the sound come out. That is what cord effort should feel like: like the vocal cords are pulled together, engaged, and you can make a clear, full sound that has some tone to it, as opposed to just hearing breath pushing through. Cord Effort is what you want to try to use when singing in your Chest Voice, to ensure your vocal cords are engaging properly and healthily. The more you get the cords together, so they can vibrate against one another and create a nice, balanced, full tone, the more you are strengthening these muscles in the right way. 

Now, I want to say a quick word here about "effort." "Effort" should not be confused with ANY sort of pushing or squeezing. Remember one of our cardinal rules of singing: singing should be more of a mental effort than a physical one. If you find yourself pushing or squeezing when singing, fall back for a second and check in with your breathing and placement. Ensure you are taking a proper inhale, exhaling freely as you sing, and that you are thinking of your voice being carried forward, out of your body, towards the opposite wall. When I say "effort" I am referring to the vocal cords being engaged, which is paramount in creating a nice, balanced, resonant tone - which is essentially what we're trying to do at all times. Creating a resonant tone is the first step to all the other pieces - volume, strength, power. 

So, when you're singing in Chest Voice you want to 1) think about singing with proper cord effort, and 2) now we need to address those bottoming-out notes. Many new singers (especially my women) are surprised at how many more notes they have available to them at the bottom of their range, simply because they didn't know the right way to "place" these low notes. For our Chest Voices, we want to think about our voices as being at Mouth Level - remember, another one of our cardinal singing rules is that we are no longer thinking of our voices as being down in our throats, where we need to push them out; from here on out, we need to have a mental image of our voices as up and out, starting with Chest Voice. So, Chest Voice is starting up at Mouth Level, now. When you are singing your low notes, you want to really think of placing the sound forward, outside and in front of the mouth. When done correctly, you should feel your voice "click in" to the pitch in a very solid way - not in the way you might have been trying to croak the notes out from your throat as before. My voice teacher (shoutout to Coreen Sheehan!) used to have me actually physically lean my chest forward to get the notes properly placed forward. You can try this as well; something about the physical action of leaning forward helps you to steady your larynx so the vocal cords can actually work themselves to stretch to, and produce, the note. 

This brings me to the physiological breakdown of what we are really trying to do here with the Chest Voice Placement. Your larynx should be sort of tilting, rocking backwards and forwards a little bit, as you are singing. It should not, however, be dipping WAY down, or hiking WAY up. When an untrained singer is trying to sing low notes, their larynx, trying to help, will bob too far down, which sort of gets in the way of staying steady so the vocal cords can pull to the proper pitch opening. Same thing with high notes: our larynx will jump way up, under our throats, as we start reaching up and up as our voices try to sing higher. Neither action will help you hit your notes. And so, we need to try to keep our larynx steady. Instead of focusing directly in to KEEPING THE LARYNX STEADY - which you've likely never thought about doing, ever, and have no clue HOW to do, at all (who does?!) - we focus on using proper Placement to achieve this goal of physically keeping your instrument steady as you learn to create the pitches. Voila - the result is a healthier way of going about singing, which results in a more balanced, resonant tone...and you know where that leads, by now.

Head Voice = Singing From the Vocal Cords

Head Voice is usually the register that eludes most people, and that usually needs the most love when new singers come to me. Think about it: we don't spend as much time speaking up in the Head Voice, like we do in Chest Voice, so the Cricoarytenoid muscles are naturally more under-developed than the Thyroid muscle group. On top of that, the sound feels "false" to many people due to how we hear and perceive our own voices (that whole acoustic perception piece is a doozy). Furthermore, there's this whole cultural narrative that not only singing is HARD, but that singing high notes is VERY HARD. All these pieces combined result in all kinds of incorrect and unhealthy ways that people try to muscle out their high notes, typically by pushing too much air (a lot of vocal coaches will tell you - inaccurately - to "send more air" which, unless you're actually holding your breath, will not help you with your high notes), or squeezing and reaching from the throat. 

The key to properly placing your voice in Head Voice is largely mental. We'll break down singing your high notes into a few different key parts:

1) mental visualization: singing down, rather than up

2) thinking the cords together: creating your notes from the vocal cords engaging and coming together to create pitch

and

3) not pushing as much air: creating an engaged, ringing tone, as opposed to allowing more air out in between the cords

Mental Visualization

The mental visualization piece is honestly a big game-changer for most of my students, and seems to make the biggest difference in the Head Voice. When we are singing in Head Voice, we want to flip our way of thinking about our high notes. Rather than thinking of singing UP to our high notes, instead, we want to either think of singing DOWN to the notes, or think of the notes as being right out in FRONT of us, as if on a horizontal place. Again, Placement isn't about some magical "The Secret" kind of thinking that will click everything into place instantly, but is more about our mental visualizations resulting in physical changes in our bodies and instruments, to get us to be able to utilize our instrument more effectively. When you think of the note as being "up" you are going to physically be reaching up for the note - your larynx will hike up, your jaw will tense and jut out, or you will squeeze and tense in the throat to try and push the note out. But. Remembering that the only thing that creates pitch is the vocal cords pulling together to a certain pitch (with the other pieces, the throat, for example, needing to stay relaxed and open so as to create a resonant chamber for the sound the cords are producing), you can see how this is flawed. Instead, we need to think of creating the pitch by getting the cords pulled together. We'll have an easier time doing this if we're not tensing to reach up to the notes, which is why we're using this visualization of the notes being DOWN, or horizontal on a straight line traveling straight ahead of us. So, pick one; try each one on for size and see which one makes the most sense to you, and which one results in you relaxing more:

1) Think DOWN: as you inhale, imagine you have caught a wave which perches you up already above the note. As you come into the first note, picture yourself singing or floating DOWN to it. Some people find that physically bending their knees to sink down (imagining something of a counterweight idea) helps them with this initially. Play around, use a mirror, and see what images help you to click into this "down as you go up" idea. 

2) Think HORIZONTAL: as you start to sing your first note, imagine this note (and all subsequent notes) are simply traveling out right in front of you on a horizontal line. Some people think of a laser cutting through the air, and all the notes stay on this plane. I've heard other people talk about thinking of a spot on the floor that they allow to "scoot" forward as they sing more notes. Again, play around with which images come to you naturally and make the most sense. 

Give yourself time and allow the process of undoing any bad, physically-tensing habits to take as long as you need. Remember, we're working on changing muscle memory and default physical habits - you've spent a lot of years learning to sing this way and, while it may not take years, per se, it will take some time to undo some of the knee-jerk habits, and then relearn newer, healthier ones in their place. So be gentle with yourself, and work with each piece one at a time before moving onto the next so you can be sure you're not taking on one too many things all at once. As always, a vocal coach who is trained in vocal technique can go a long way in identifying for you what physical habits you might be engaging in, and can zone in on these very quickly. And, again, usually when we're singing "correctly" and healthily, it will feel deceptively easy. 

Singing From The Cords

Once we ensure we're not reaching up and tensing by trying to push our high notes out, we can start to think of a "DO" action: thinking the cords together to ensure they are engaging properly. Again, I like to use a mental picture or visualization in order to do this. Let's go back to our rubber band analogy. Thinking of your vocal cords like a rubber band, you want to picture pulling the rubber band together so that both sides, or "cords" are pulled fully together, leaving no space between them (in reality, there IS a very tiny space in between the cords here - when we are singing in Head Voice, we're just using the very inner edges of our vocal cords to create our pitches; while the air vibrates the cords against one another, there is a tiny space in between. It's important to remember that while we are not pushing our air out, we do always need air blowing through, so as to not just rub the cords against one another. This isn't healthy singing either). Think the cords together, trying to not use volume or air pressure (which we will address in a second) to make your notes. The notes will likely feel light, and maybe even weaker than you'd like them to be. This is okay. Allow the notes to be light and floaty, and we will work on strengthening and filling out the tone later. What you are really trying to cultivate here is singing your high notes from the cords coming together. This is all about the strength of the Cricoarytenoid muscles, and allowing THEM the chance to pull together to create the pitch, as opposed to using volume and/or air pressure to do this. If you are always using volume or air pressure to blast and push out your high notes, you're never giving these little muscles a chance to do the heavy lifting, and you'll never build the muscle memory to be able to rely on them. We need to effectively "bench" volume and air pressure and give these muscles a chance to work and build up strength. Similar to when you learn proper form when working out with weights, you might feel like this is a less gratifying way of singing. As when weight training properly, to properly work the right muscles, you might find that the proper form and execution requires you to limit your range of motion - it feels similar with learning to sing properly. We may to reign it in a bit initially in order to ensure you're working the right muscles, as opposed to all the other ones that aren't actually going to help develop a strong, healthy, versatile voice. 

If you are finding this very difficult to do, you can use a little trick to get the cords together. I do not recommend using this trick for longer than a week or two - it can be a little too heavy-handed for the vocal cords, but can be a helpful way to feel the cords coming together. As you start to sing your first note (I recommend an OOH vowel for Head Voice work, as it uses a bit more air, and the smaller shape seems to be easier to work with for most people), you can think of almost stroking the cords together (it might be a little bit of a slam to start - PLEASE be gentle!), to really FEEL them come together in your larynx. You may use a little bit of volume here to get a little jump-start, but please make sure you aren't pushing or squeezing while you do this. When you get really good at this, you will be able to feel the cords engaging. Until then, you're trying to go for a really ringey, clear-as-a-bell sort of tone - this is how you'll know the cords are coming together and engaging. 

Don't Push So Much Air!

Lastly, something I see a lot of people do is push more air to try and muscle out those high notes. This creates a vicious cycle because the more air we push, the harder it is for the cords to fully come together and create a strong, full tone. Here's the thing about Head Voice: a strong Head Voice doesn't come from a big, heavy, voluminous sound like the way Chest Voice feels. A strong Head Voice comes from a strong tone cutting through at a higher frequency. Therefore, if we want to have a "strong" Head Voice, we need to focus on creating a strong tone, as opposed to focusing on volume and power. We're going to create a strong tone by ensuring that our vocal cords are engaged up there, and then we're going to repeat this action to build the muscle memory, and tune all of our 5 vowels (EE / EH / AH / OH / OOH) to teach ourselves how to sing each note in our range on each vowel sound we will encounter. 

So my last piece of best-practice advice for a properly-placed Head Voice is to ensure you're not pushing air, which will help you get your cords together and create a stronger tone. When you are singing high notes, try to focus on making a really ringey sound, like a bell, and trying to keep the cords engaged to not allow any breathiness into the tone. Breathy tones are created by the vocal cords not being all the way together, thus allowing more air than tone out. Of course, breathiness as a vocal effect is totally cool and can absolutely be used - as a vocal effect. But my goal with all the voices I work with is to have a default of a really well-balanced, well-placed voice, with other vocal effects being just that - effects that you add or subtract at will, and not because your voice isn't strong enough to produce notes any other way. So, once you're able to engage your first notes of a scale in a ringey tone, then the key to building the strength more is to KEEP the tone ringey as you sing through the other notes - this is the key to really strengthening. As we are letting off slack, or tightening, on the vocal cords to change pitches, it's really easy for them to let go, and lose the "stretch of cord." Our goal is try to keep the cords together - keeping the stretch of cord at all times - which is the true test of strength. Again, you can add breathiness, or weight, or different colors and textures to different notes, but first we must master a clean slate of a properly-engaged tone. 

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As always, I hope this has been helpful! There's a lot of information in here, so take it step-by-step and keep at it. Remember, the voice does take time to build, but it's also an instrument that intuitively knows how to sing itself. Try to let it do its thing, without trying to prod or force it into sounding a certain way, and you might just be surprised that singing becomes easier when you allow your voice to be what it is at the moment, and observe, and then use your tools to help guide it towards more strength and freedom. 

Happy Singing, songbirds. <3

My Students Do Rad Things: Oh The Nerve

PREMIERE ALERT! 

Gosh, my students are go-getters. I have another one of my longtime (I think three years, now?!) students, Teresa Tuan, releasing her debut single with her band, newly-christened Oh The Nerve. A queer-feminist-soul band, Oh The Nerve has been a long time in the making. I remember Teresa showing me the first versions of these songs when we first started working together years ago, and I'm so proud of how far she's come in our time together. We've worked on the songs, her voice, and all the other little pieces about being a musician and navigating the music business, and she's always been incredibly tenacious, driven, and unyielding. I'm so glad to get to share her debut single + video for "Middle of the Bed," from her forthcoming EP, out in Fall 2018. Read all about it here on The Bay Bridged, and watch the awesome video below. 

Congratulations, Teresa & Oh The Nerve! <3

Singing 101: Placing The Voice Properly

In this next installment of my Singing 101 series, we're going to discuss Vocal Placement.

Vocal Placement is one of those concepts in singing that seems to be a bit obtuse and vague - nebulous, subtle, confusing, and therefore, maddening. Fun, I know! But, as you will discover on your singing journey, there is much to singing that can feel like a slippery fish you're trying to grab a hold of....unsuccessfully....for weeks, or even months, until one day you grasp it, and everything clicks. With that being said, let's begin. Shall we?

The Muffled Box Idea: Why Placement? 

Here's another fun fact about the voice, and singing: you don't hear your voice the same way other people do. I don't mean that figuratively - I mean that literally. Think about it: have you ever heard a voicemail of yourself speaking, and wondered who it was, only to discover it was YOUR voice? You were probably taken by surprise by the sound of your voice. There's a reason for that. It's called Acoustic Perception. When you speak, you are literally hearing your voice in a muffled box - your skull. Therefore, what you are hearing is not quite accurate. I know. I'll give you a minute to process that one.

...And, we're back! R.I.P. to what you thought your voice sounded like! SO. Since we can't rely on our own ears to determine what sounds good or not while we're singing, what CAN we rely on?! Is there nothing to make this damn singing thing easier? There is. That's why we use placement, more accurately described as feeling the resonance of our voices and the accompanying sympathetic vibrations in our bodies and faces, to determine how to properly sing. 

If you think about it, your voice is an acoustic instrument and works much like an acoustic guitar. Your vocal cords (or strings) have a certain tension (or frequency) to pull to, to create a pitch. The sound then swirls around and resonates in your body (or the body of a hollow-body, or acoustic, guitar) - i.e. your throat, mouth, chest, nasal cavities, and skull. The sound then travels out of your mouth (like the hole in an acoustic guitar). The bones and flesh of your face and neck and body create a space against and within which your voice resonates. 

Vocal Placement refers to working with this vocal resonance - literally, focusing your sound into a specific area where you feel or "sense" the resonant sensations and vibrations. How you do this is largely through visualizations - visualizing your voice as less in your throat (which will lead you to trying to physically push your voice out more and more - not what we want), and more up in your face (at mouth level, in the face, or skull) and outside of your body, is a good place to start. Since singing is essentially playing with pitch frequency and resonance - and you have nothing, in essence, that is exactly "tangible" - your mental visualizations will send cues to your body to either physically tense (tensing your instrument), or relax (freeing up your instrument so it can work on its own). Think again about a guitar - when you get a new guitar, it was designed, crafted, built, and set-up properly as an instrument. The voice is really the only instrument we need to sort of "set up" on our own before we can fully play it. So think of placement as learning to "play" your instrument the same as you would learn to play the guitar - feeling out where to place your fingers and how much to press, etc. Pretty trippy - I know.

Mental vs. Physical Effort

Before we go any further, I also want you to let this idea sink in: that singing should be more of mental effort than a physical one. I know it doesn't seem that way. We've all gotten it so ingrained into our brains that singing is hard. We try and try and maybe haven't had luck in producing sounds or tones the way we'd like to. So, what do we do? What we do in most areas of our life: TRY HARDER. WORK HARDER. PUSH OURSELVES. PUSH OUR BODIES. SQUEEZE. DO, DO, DO. In fact, all this heavy-handedness, strain, and tension is the antithesis of good singing, and truly is (I promise you) only getting in the way. Instead, we need to learn to work WITH our voices, and, as scary as it is, allow them to be free, traveling outside of our bodies and thus our "control", allowing the voice to make its natural register shifts, allowing them to be lighter in order to build the proper kind of strength (from the muscles controlling the vocal cords). Think of this like proper weight-lifting technique. You can tense and strain a bunch of muscles and joints and cause strain and injury; or you can learn to lift weights properly to target the actual muscle groups you're trying to strengthen in the first place. This may require you to limit your range of motion, or be more mindful about your form - the same is absolutely true for your vocal cords, and your singing. 

I'm certainly not going to sit here and tell you that singing is, in fact, easy (it's not, and requires the same sort of dedication as any other instrument); nor am I going to tell you that by doing THIS ONE THING that it will all magically click into place. Any instructor who sells you snake-oil cures should not be listened to. But. Singing is NOT about exerting physical effort to push the voice out. I promise you this. While, yes, it is physical - I am absolutely of the belief that it shouldn't be a taxing effort. This will only continue to stress the voice and cause it to continue to elude you. 

Instead, you need to start to get comfortable with the idea of allowing your voice to sing itself - not by strong-arming or pushing it, but by working with its natural shifts, transitions, and resonance. 

You need to get comfortable with the idea of visualizing your voice in order to sing with it.

You need to get comfortable with the idea of it being a mental effort, not a physical one.

Again, think of your throat, mouth, chest, face, and head as a sounding board that the sound is bouncing off of. Since you don't have anything tangible to work with as a vocalist (strings to touch/fret on a guitar, or keys to play with your fingers on a piano), we work with our resonance in this sensing-vibrations/focusing the sound type of way. Of course, most people think of their voices as being in their throats, since that is where the vocal cords are housed. This is where the visualization piece comes in - we're essentially trying to focus and direct our sound to have an easier time feeling, and thus singing, our voices. Since our voices reside within our body, mental images (visualizations) can help us to subconsciously, and then physically, relax certain parts of the singing mechanism in order to produce a more balanced and pleasant tone. 

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Correct Placement

Since Placement is essentially a sensation, you might feel the vibrations or sensations of singing a bit differently than someone else. That's fine. I want you to get endlessly curious about, and comfortable in, YOUR voice. Really think about what you're sensing, where you're sensing it, what images or associations come up for you when you're singing. Where do you FEEL it? I know this sounds cheesy, but bear with me here. I literally mean to intuit where you are feeling the vibrations - not just spouting off some flowery bullshit (though I have that in spades, for those of you who are down to get philosophical!). 

As a good starting point, most singers (myself included) find that placing their voice in the mask is the easiest way to feel the voice, and to free it up. What is the Mask? The Mask is the area in the face around your eyes and nose - like where you'd wear a Mardi Gras mask. You can try to feel the vibrations of singing here by relaxing the throat, neck, jaw, and tongue whilst singing. Another simple way I try to get my students to feel vibrations up here is by having them hum - trying to think of feeling the vibrations on the roof of the mouth or higher. 

Another common sensation, or visualization, is the sense that the voice is even higher, above the head, and outside the body. Some singers find that high notes are easier to get out if they "send the notes" out the top of their heads. On the other hand: other singers find that this only causes them to tense and "reach up" for the notes. These students, I instruct to think of singing DOWN to their high notes (I know, I know - again, take a moment to wrap your head around that) - a visualization of singing DOWN causes them to physically relax (i.e. not tensing, reaching UP) - which allows them to get the notes out much, much easier. Another tactic is to visualize that your voice is just traveling out on a horizontal plane in front of you - that all the notes you encounter, whether high, or low, are just right straight in front of you, rather than envisioning them UP high, or DOWN low, where you'll be tempted to (and possibly in the habit of) physically either reaching up to push the notes out, or scooping/dipping down to get the low notes).

For me, the moral of the story is this: Do not think of your voice as being in - and only in - your throat. The best, most proper, and free placement usually comes from envisioning the voice "from the neck up."

Some Troubleshooting:

What Kind of Placement Am I Using, and What Can I Do About It?

First off, this is where I will say that a vocal coach can come in quite handy. As we covered previously, it can be really hard to hear your own vocal quirks and habits yourself. A well-versed and knowledgeable vocal coach is trained to listen for, and suss out, these exact things, and to give you specific and honest (though loving) feedback about what she or he is hearing in terms of Placement. Getting a trusted vocal coach, who can help you to understand when you are singing your best, and help you to discern when that is and why, is an invaluable investment for your singing and voice. Even one session is enough to get some answers, and a diagnosis. 

Barring that, I'd recommend recording yourself (though this is not meant to be used to judge oneself, y'hear?!) and listening back as a more accurate way to assess what you hear. Often, students don't/can't hear what I am referring to when I talk about certain tone qualities; it is only when they record themselves and listen back that they can hear a nasal tone, a trapped-sounding tone, a strained-tone, a shoutey-tone, breathy-tone, etc. 

Let's use a couple examples of different types of Placement that are quite common, and some visualizations I commonly use to help my students with these. 

Throaty / Shouting Quality

The most common placement issue I hear from most singers is this one. The sound is trapped down and back in the throat (think Kermit The Frog for an exaggerated example of this tone quality), causing the singer to feel the need to squeeze and push the voice to get it out. Relaxing the neck and throat in order to sing is a tricky one. I think this one depends on the individual, but a couple tricks I use are: thinking the voice higher, in the mask. Thinking of the voice more forward in face, or out in front of the body/face, or up at mouth level. Imagining the back of the throat open and sending the sound OUT (not open and choking the sound/vowel back). When ascending, thinking of singing on a horizontal line, so as to combat tightening the throat and reaching up to get to high notes. Practicing singing by allowing voice to go, to travel freely out of the body, relaxing the neck, throat, jaw, and tongue so you can feel the vibrations in the face more. Relaxing your tongue forward, against the gumline of your bottom two front teeth.

Nasal Tone Quality

The classic example that comes to mind when we think of someone with a nasal tone quality is Bob Dylan (though, for the record, I love Bob Dylan - and clearly this never, ya know, hindered the man's career). The voice sounds trapped inside the nose, giving it an overly-bright, almost tinny quality. One visualization I use for those with a nasal tone quality, is to get them to think of raising the roof of their mouths. Really imagine that the roof of the mouth is lifting and creating this big, cavernous (caveness? okay, sorry....) space, like a big, vaulted ceiling on an old church. This gets them to physically (though unconsciously to them) raise their soft palate - a collapsed, or too-low soft palate, is usually the culprit behind a nasal tone. Another visualization I might use is to get these people to think of singing in a more open, rounded way, like an opera singer might. Getting them to pull the sound a little bit back usually helps to soften the harshness of a nasal tone, and balances the tone. Another (sort of out-there) visualization I use is to get the student to imagine something that smells delicious (Thanksgiving dinner, anyone?), and to imagine they are smelling that smell. Inhale, as if you are really smelling that thing. This is what it feels like to have the nasal cavity open, an important part of resonating. Then, imagine that you are talking closely to someone who has bad breath. You know when you mouth-breathe, to avoid tipping the other person off to their faux pas? This feeling is what it feels like to have the nasal cavity closed off. When you're singing, try to imagine it's perpetually Thanksgiving dinner. As with anything having to do with the voice, pick one that seems to work for you, and produce the most pleasant sound and comfortable, easy way of producing the sound. 

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Placement & Muscle Memory

One of the coolest things about the voice is that it LIVES INSIDE OF YOU. It resides in your body. That's pretty damn awesome. It's why the voice is so expressive, personal, and dynamic. It is literally an extension of everything going on inside of you: your thoughts, feelings, body, all of it. The not-so-cool part of that is that your instrument LIVES INSIDE OF YOU. So all your thoughts, feelings, how your body's feeling, how stressed or tired you are, if you ate something that causes phlegm buildup on your vocal cords - basically freakin' everything! see, fun! - can have an impact (positive AND negative) on how your voice works, and how you learn to work with it. That being said, one of the biggest challenges to the voice is anxiety: personal anxieties, insecurity about our voices, or ourselves, pain, hurt, the vulnerability of letting our voices out; the list can go on. When we are tense about something, we physically tense. Even little muscles we didn't know were there can be tensing up without us even knowing it. This makes a huge difference in our voices, because the instrument is made up of so many little pieces in our bodies, all working together, and all living in our body. If we're feeling tense - and what can be more loaded than opening up our mouths and singing for another person, sometimes?! - then all those little pieces (which are the nuts and bolts of your instrument) are going to tense up. The result of this is that it literally changes the physical instrument. Think about it: if a guitar player or piano player is tense, or nervous, maybe their hands shake, causing them to have a harder time playing cleanly. But the instrument itself did not change because THEY were nervous, or tense, or didn't learn to fret the chords in the most successful way. The piano or guitar are exactly the same regardless of whether the player is tense or not. So. As a singer, add to the equation the fact that you are (likely) changing the physical makeup (albeit even slightly) when you are mentally and physically tensing, and you can see why certain notes or spots in our voices might continue to elude us. It's akin to changing the string tension on a guitar mid-song. After years and years of getting our voices out this way, most of us have ingrained this muscle memory for singing that is basically second-nature - and mosst likely is keeping us in a feedback loop of an improperly placed voice. 

The aim of proper placement is to see where we are tensing, how we are tensing, and replacing those bad habits with better habits that are more conducive to better singing. 

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Registers & Placement

In my next Singing 101 post, I'm going to outline how to properly place your voice in your different registers. The voice is typically divided up into 3 different registers: Chest Voice, Head Voice, and Mixed Voice (if you need a primer on this, you're in luck - refer to my Range & Registers post here). For our purposes here, we're going to start with just Chest Voice and Head Voice - these are the first two registers you'll want to develop and strengthen, which will in turn start to strengthen and fill in your Mixed Voice, or the Bridge of your voice. 

So stay tuned for that one and, as always...Happy Sangin'. <3

Student Showcase Videos - 4.19.18

Oh my goodness(!), the last Caveness Voice + SongRise Studios Student Showcase was SUCH a solid night of awesome talent. I was especially proud of all my singers, who were so professional, gave uniquely-them, dynamic performances, and brought the house DOWN. 

Here's a little sampling (along with a cameo by yours truly with Ms. Kristina Boyce) of Jessie Greger (of duo Mark + Jessie), Kristina Boyce, and Yoonha Jeong (of duo Nabi Air). 

<3

A Night of Singers: April 19th @ Neck of the Woods SF!

April 19th | A Night of Singers | Neck of the Woods

So excited to present two first-time Caveness Showcase performers who are performing with their musical projects: Jessie Greger, (duo Mark & Jessie) and Yoonha Jeong (debuting her new original project, Nabi Air!). Longtime Caveness vet Kristina Boyce will also be gracing the stage. Presented alongside our sister studio, SongRise Studios, this is going to be one of our most eclectic showcases yet. 

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Open Mic Field Trip!

I'm shamefully late in posting these (things have been B-U-S-Y over here at Caveness!), but I took a group of some of my awesome singers on a little "field trip" to a really great Open Mic held at Neck of the Woods in SF. Neck of the Woods is a great venue and supporter of local music; this is where Caveness holds most of our Student Showcases, and it has been a really valuable supporter of what we're doing to give new artists a platform for performance. 

Here are some little snippets of some of my most dedicated students! Liz Ward, Allegra Roberts, Michael Downing (Baird & Beluga / Redwood Skyline), Merrill Burch, and Sam Trusley. I'm so proud of all of them working towards developing their individual musical projects!

My Students Do Rad Things: Merrill Burch

Ms. Merrill says it best. So enormously proud of her for picking herself back up, and getting back on to the proverbial horse. I have so many thoughts on this - how we, and other people, are so harsh on ourselves as singers, and how we need to remember we're not robots; we're HUMAN. <3

https://soundcloud.com/merrill-burch/in-the-mountains

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"I’ve been singing and playing music now for about 7 years. Seeing Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers at High Sierra Music Festival back in 2010 inspired me to pick up a guitar and explore my voice. Since then I’ve always been a close follower of their music. A couple years ago, their rendition on In The Mountains by Sarah Siskind grabbed my attention. The three part harmonies and the simplicity of the arrangement are so beautiful. If you are not familiar, check out Sarah’s song as well as the version fromNicki. They are incredibly moving. This November, I went to a vocal workshop in Nashville with both my parents. The weekend was amazing and the final day included recording a song incorporating harmony parts with your assigned group (aka with my mom and dad) - we chose In The Mountains. I knew immediately during the recording session that I wasn’t feeling my vocals at all. I felt strained, wobbly, tired. All that was confirmed a few weeks later when I heard the recorded track. It’s interesting how just one snapshot in time can shake you. I felt like I had moved 10 steps backwards. But that’s what a snapshot is... One moment in time. And at that time, I just wasn’t feeling it. I wanted to re-record the song because I knew I could do better. There remains endless room for growth, and I definitely plan to keep exploring and (hopefully) improving. Here’s a snapshot, a moment in time. In The Mountains by Sarah Siskind, recorded at my parent’s house in Palo Alto this December."

Happy New Year! Resolution: Getting Better At Being Bad At Things

Happy New Year, Caveness Community! 2017 was a challenging year for so many people. Truly, it was one for the books - whether your personal journey through last year was a positive or negative one, I'm sure it grew you up, spit you out, and has left you ripe for some amazing things to flourish in 2018. 

In that spirit, I wanted to share this short-but-sweet article from Ta-Nehisi Coates. It's about something that has taken me 32 years to come to terms with, and something I am constantly striving for, myself. That something is this: being better at being bad at things. 

As a perfectionist, I have always had a really hard time being bad at things. Not because I wasn't bad at them - oh, no. Believe me, there are lots of things I've been bad at, even singing. I mean, I am bad at letting myself be bad at things. This is so hard for me. I'd rather almost not try at all, then try and suck at something. But. Guess what. You HAVE to be bad at something to be able to get good at it. It's very rare you're going to start anything and be blessed with ease and style whilst doing it. No, no, no, my sweets. You're gonna suck at it. And you SHOULD. It's through the sucking, and the frustration, and the breaking-down-in-tears-screaming-profanities (umm.....just for an example?!), that you claw your way through to the good stuff. It's not about being perfect at first - it's about little by little recommitting to something, and seeing something get smoothed over, uncovered, like a stone under a river's waters. 

So, for me, 2018 is going to be all about being BAD at things, doing the things that scare the shit out of me, and just GOING for it. I hope you'll join me on this messy, beautiful endeavor. 

<3