On Developing Your Vocal Range

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After my first recent post on voicings for mixed barbershop choruses, I received a message from a singer who sings in both male-voice and mixed-voice choruses asking about practical advice for developing his upper range. So that guarantees that I have at least one interested reader for this particular blog post.

As is so often the way, a couple of headline points will be useful to start with before heading into the nitty-gritty. As I mentioned in my post on advice for older voices, range works very much on a use-it-or-lose it basis, so if you don’t regularly visit the outer edges of where you can currently sing, those edges will move closer together. You might not (probably won’t) need the extremes in much actual repertoire, but by keeping in touch with them you give yourself headroom for the rangier passages in your music.

Sirening is always a good bet for doing this. Sliding up and down throughout your range to an ‘ng’ hum allows you to play with flexing your larynx without putting undue pressure on it. And by ‘pressure’ I mean both the physical strains we sometimes put our voices under with excess airflow and unnecessary muscular tension, and the psychological strains of worrying about singing high, which is often the source of said muscular tension.

In my own private practice I also like to use an exercise I learned in my singing lessons with Mollie Petrie back at university: 1-3-2-1-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 (i.e. leaping up a third and then down a scale for a bit over two octaves to the bottom tonic), either to ‘ya-ya-ya-ya…’ or ‘here am I here am I…’

Now into more detail about what it means to develop your higher range: it’s primarily about accessing your upper register readily and integrating it into your mid-range register such that you can move smoothly between them as needed. We use our vocal folds differently in different parts of the voice, so there is a limit to how much higher you can get in the standard, mid-range voice you usually sing in without incurring strain, discomfort, and flattening of pitch. You can hear when people are trying to push this register too high as it sound like they’re hitting a kind of vocal ‘glass ceiling’.

What you need to do, therefore, is to use your upper register (aka falsetto, head voice, M2, etc, depending on the vocal tradition you’ve learned your vocabulary from). This will take you up much further before it starts becoming a strain.

(I just went searching for a blog post by Jeremy Fisher I read a few years ago that had some interesting explanations/descriptions of what singers are doing when they move between registers, involving managing the resonating space to create a consistent sound across different ‘settings’ of the vocal folds. I didn’t spend long enough to find the specific one I remembered because I got sucked into reading a bunch of other ones, so I’ll just share this one and let you browse your way down that rabbit hole from there.)

There are two dimensions to this. The first is accessing this register; some people find this easy, others less so. The most direct way I know to do this is not to think about singing, but to imitate the spoken tone of a high-pitched squeaky voice. ‘Silly little voice’ is the phrase I use to demonstrate this in person, and then I encourage people to draw on shared cultural references (cartoon characters, pantomime dames, animal noises) to play around in that register.

Once you can find it, the task then becomes how to integrate it, connect it up with your full voice so that can move between the registers fluidly, and without big change of tone. (You might sometimes want to use that change of tone for artistic purposes, but you often just want the extra range without drawing attention to how you’re getting it.) My experience has been that to start in the upper register and work down is in the first instance the easiest way to do this.

There’s a nice exercise for this I found in the learning materials on the Telfordaires’ website when I first joined the chorus, so used in my warm-up in what turned out to be a mistaken belief that it would be familiar to them. It wasn’t, as it happened, but it is now. It involves singing a scale down an octave and back again on an ooh, starting in the falsetto range, with the goal of keeping the placement consistent throughout so that once you’re down into the lower range you can get safely back up to the top again. (Then we do it again, blossoming down into harmony, though I can’t now remember if that was in the original resource or whether I added that bit, nicking the notes from a different exercise I already knew.)

You’ll also note that the exercise I learned from Molly Petrie mentioned above uses this principle of starting high and blending through the passaggio (as the Italians call the point of register shift).

The two primary obstacles people tend to run into when working to extend their upper range are:

  1. Too much airflow. The higher you go, the less air you need to get the folds vibrating. You still need to connect the voice to your body, but if in doing this you pump a large volume of air at your folds, you are liable to find your tone becoming breathier than you want, and the whole thing more tiring than it needs to be. Using SOVTs like straw phonation, vvv or zzz sounds, or indeed the ng hum of sirening will help calibrate how little air you actually need at any given point in your voice.
  2. Extraneous muscular tension. This can be a result of wanting to ‘support’ the voice as you go higher and getting too many muscles involved, or it can be an emotional response to anxiety about singing high, bracing yourself against the memory of past difficulties. Either way, physical movement is your friend, whether it is serving to divert muscular engagement away from where it is getting in the way into activities that encourage mobility/flexibility, or simply as a distraction technique. If the bit of your brain that would be busy worrying gets hijacked to make whizzy hand movements while you sing, you end up with insufficient cognitive resources also to fret.

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