Welcome back! So, you have probably clicked on this link because you understand the annoyance and sound that is the foundation to straining when singing. Straining sounds painful and feels very tight and unnatural… simple. Maybe straining only happens when singing: certain songs, when singing high, when looking for power or just when you are caught off guard. Without knowing any better it is something that very easily can become a vocal habit.
A common solution to alleviate the problem is to change the key of the song but singers often find that time consuming and sometimes left with a feeling of being beaten. It is possible to sing the majority of songs in a higher key but first, a singer must find the root of the problem. Below is a list of the most common issues that cause a singer to strain.
Oo my favorite… not! For its size, the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body – we strengthen it every day through talking, eating, swallowing, singing and unconscious movements! Even the voice has been overused throughout the day (a lot of or too much talking) the tongue starts to tense to try and help the vocal mechanism creating a hold effect and limiting movement. Put short, the root of the tongue is connected to the top of the larynx (voice box) which messes with the natural position of the larynx. An unnatural larynx position does not allow your vocal folds to vibrate freely which restricts the pitches and sounds that a singer can create.
However, do not read wrong into this. The tongue does need to move, just in the right way. It doesn’t move backward away from your teeth and it doesn’t push forward out of your mouth. It doesn’t need to sit high towards your palate and my most common and frustrating problem… do not push the tongue down into the throat. Many have believed that this causes something called an ‘open throat’. It does not. The tongue just needs to move freely and stay relaxed. There are a number of exercises that can help a singer relive tongue tensions and encourage it to move with freedom and flexibility.
When you sing higher in your range you need LESS AIR. Yep. Less. A lot of singers blow their air as hard as they can with the thought of ‘more effort = more sound’. This will cause the abdominal muscles to tense and the vocal mechanism to recruit more muscles to ‘help out’ more than needed.
For a simple and quick analogy then I recommend this video by Mark Baxter:
Additionally, singers must allow the air to flow without any extra effort than that which is natural to the required sounds. Release the abdominal muscles, aim to take a deep breath into the back and allow the breath to flow. Upon the inhale, keep the stomach relaxed and allow the air to enter on the recoil. This takes a lot of time and patience but is very beneficial to strain-free singing. Very quiet and very clean (not breathy sounds) exercises and slides are a great way to start reducing the air pressure and creating an even balance within the voice.
Not Allowing the Voice to Thin.
Not allowing the voice to thin out as you get higher will cause a whole world of problems. You can only take your lower voice up so far before it either cracks or stops completely. The voice needs to ‘drop weight’ little by little as the pitch ascends. A common mistake, as mentioned previous, is that we have a preconception of what the voice should ‘feel’ like which is often incorrect. Creating a small, high and energetic whimper like a puppy will start to give you a feel of what vocal cord thinning feels like.
Lack of Knowledge.
What is the most common cause of strain? Not knowing the proper vocal technique. It is that simple. I can’t fix the pipes in my house because I have never studied plumbing and the same principle can apply to singing.
Find a good voice teacher who can provide you with a healthy and proven technique. Don’t be afraid to ask those questions and challenge them about how they can help you!