Pitch Perfect Pipes
by Jackie Tortora
There aren’t too many hard and fast rules when it comes to singing. Most singers can feel and hear their problem spots. “If your voice feels good and sounds good it probably is good. If it feels bad and sounds good, something is wrong,” says Jeannette LoVetri, director of The Voice Workshop in New York City.
As a voice instructor for more than 35 years, LoVetri knows a thing or two about getting the most out of your voice. Similar to musicians play an instrument, singers must make sure their technique is correct to avoid injury. “If you can’t make yourself sound good and feel good, go get help from a skilled singer or teacher,” says LoVetri. “If that doesn’t help, seek out an otolaryngologist or throat specialist and get examined right away. Vocal problems that are ignored can lead to serious issues down the road, both vocal and in general health.”
If you’re confident your voice is where you want it to be, there are still plenty of exercises you can do on your own to get optimum sound. LoVetri shares 12 tips to become a better singer by ensuring vocal health and improving pitch and range:
1) Breathe Easy. In order to breathe efficiently for singing, a vocalist has to have excellent postural alignment. The rib cage needs to be open, lifted, and strong, and the inhalation needs to go deep into the torso, as the lungs inflate downward and outward. The abdominal muscles should work to keep the chest lifted and open but not be locked and hard and should release slightly forward and down during inhalation. During exhalation, the ribs should maintain their lifted and open position through the sung sounds, while the abdominal muscles contract and lift in a slow steady way.
2) Heads up. The head should be level, not in front of the torso. The legs should be shoulder width apart with the knees unlocked. The weight should be slightly forward over the balls of the feet and the spine should feel stretched long. The neck should be loose and the upper chest should remain lifted and open at all times, but not rise during inhalation.
3) About Face. Your face works best when your mouth and jaw can open and close easily and freely, your facial muscles can move without tension, and your eyes are relaxed and alive.
4) Relax, Just Do It. Your throat should never squeeze, tighten, or feel tired or choked up when you sing.
5) Practice Makes Perfect. A good singer should practice for 30 to 45 minutes at least five times a week. The best way to avoid abusing your voice is to get some singing lessons with a qualified teacher who has a track record of success and solid knowledge of vocal function and health. The teacher should sound good when he or she sings.
6) Eat, Drink, and Be Wary. There are no hard and fast rules regarding what a singer should or should not eat just prior to performing. It’s best not to eat too much just before singing because having a full stomach will interfere with inhalation. Generally, singers should be well hydrated at all times, which means drinking at least six to eight glasses of water per day. It might be possible to substitute herbal tea or flavored waters, but soda, coffee, and tea should be limited as they can have a diuretic effect. Why? The vocal folds need to be well lubricated to function properly.
7) Start your engines. Singers should warm up about an hour before going to the theater or venue, and hum lightly while at the venue until they go on stage. The warm-up depends on what the person is singing. For example, singers should warm up with and in the sounds they expect to sing in the performance.
8) Timing is everything. If the vocalist is in good shape, 20 minutes is enough to warm up. Less would be possible in an experienced singer and more might be necessary in someone who is not very skilled. A warm-up should consist of varied musical patterns that cover the full pitch range, using various vowels and consonants, long and short patterns of notes, and varied volume levels.
9) Play it cool. It’s useful to sing soft “cooing” OOs and AHS on low pitches for about five minutes after a performance as a cool down.
10) Reach for the stars. If a singer wants to improve his vocal range, he should sing lightly, in an easy sound, allowing his throat to relax on the way up, gently putting more pressure on the muscles of the abdomen at the same time. If this is done carefully, it can help raise the vocal range. If he wants to develop the lower range, he should relax his throat as much as possible, allow the jaw to fall down and sing sustained sounds like AH or OH at the lowest pitches he can sustain, taking care not to strain, until he can make them louder by pressing harder on the belly muscles. Long slides on lip trills or tongue trills are helpful both going up and down. Since it is possible to squeeze high notes, just singing them without some care and attention to comfort would be a bad idea. Low notes can be swallowed or pushed, if done incorrectly, and that can cause other problems. It’s best to do development of range slowly, a little at a time.
11) Tune up. Most people who have difficulty matching pitch have coordination problems within the vocal system. Singers learn to tune the throat and mouth as a resonating tube to the pitch being sung on various vowels at various volume levels. It is easy to have poor control over all of these ingredients, particularly in specific pitch ranges, and that will effect intonation. Training and practice should take care of this unless the problem is severe.
12) Picking Up Good Vibrations. Vibrato is a side effect of a freely balanced vocal system that is neither very tight nor loose. It arises naturally after about two years of vocal training in most singers, as long as the singer does not suppress it. If the vibrato is too fast, too wide, or uneven, it is because something is not balanced in the vocal system of the body. Something is too tight or too loose and the vibrato is reflecting that. A good singing teacher ought to be able to correct any vocal problems that are having an impact on the vibrato, but the correction should be indirect.
Jeannette LoVetri is director of The Voice Workshop in NY City, artist in residence at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia, and guest teacher at the University of Michigan in the medical center in the Department of Speech Language Pathology, and at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in the Department of Jazz Studies. She is also on faculty as a lecturer at Drexel University College of Medicine, Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery. She is author of many articles on singing and has been teaching singing since 1971. (www.thevoiceworkshop.com)