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Are You Straining to Sing? By Jeannie Deva

straining to singYou can hear it in the quality and feel it in your throat when it happens. The muscles tense and pull, your tone gets kind of pinched, pitchy and shrill. And if your voice doesn’t break you can consider yourself lucky.

Perhaps you only experience vocal strain on certain occasions. You might think it’s because you weren’t born to sing in certain keys or just have a naturally low voice or the song is wrong for you (even though you love it).

And it’s true; you can lower the key or simply cut out certain songs from your repertoire. But, there is a hidden reason why you may find yourself straining. Not knowing what it is makes it easy to blame it on other things. That, not being the real reason, keeps the solution illusive and at arm’s length. So, are you ready for the unveiling of the guilty parties?

What is Vocal Strain?

Vocal Strain occurs when you vocal folds cannot vibrate as fully as they need to. At that moment, the muscles that govern them are fighting to do what is needed of them, in conflict with an opposing tension.  It would be like if you tensed the muscles of one of your arms as hard as you could and then tried to raise that same arm upward. The imposed muscle tension is contradicting the necessary and natural function, which would otherwise allow you to easily move your arm.

Three Main Reasons Vocal Strain Occurs

1) Your Tongue

Of all the muscles of your body, the tongue is the strongest muscle for its size. You use it more than you usually use most of your other muscles for: eating; drinking; swallowing saliva; talking; singing.

Additionally, if you overuse it when speaking or singing by articulating your words past what is needed in their natural pronunciation, it can become stiff or tense.

The root of your tongue is essentially connected to the top of your larynx. The larynx is the cartilage tube running vertically in the front of your throat. Check it out. Your Adam’s apple is part of it. If your tongue is tensed, when you speak or sing it causes a holding or stiffening of your larynx.

When your tongue pulls up or pushes down it interferes with the natural position of your larynx. This effects the position and operation of your vocal folds, which are housed inside. It is they that must vibrate and create the sounds and pitches of your voice. Restriction of your larynx adversely affects the working of your vocal folds, which means your voice.

I am not saying your tongue should not move. However, if you make it move more than it naturally needs to, if you pull the back of it up as you “go for a high” note or put too much emphasis on a consonant (which will ALWAYS tighten it and cause it to needlessly tighten and pull upwards), then you are unwittingly creating problems for yourself and you will experience vocal strain.

I have created a number of exercises that help limber your tongue and related muscles and present you with a previously inexperienced ease and versatility of singing.

2) Air Overblow

There is such a thing as too much pushing out as you sing. The higher you sing, the LESS AIR your vocal folds need for their vibration. And if you push in your stomach/abdomen thinking this represents breath support, you may be surprised by what I’m next going to say. By doing so, you are pushing in against lower abdominal organs, which in turn are pushing up against your diaphragm, which then is pushing up against your lungs. This inward/upward pressure in turn pushes out an airflow that then pushes against your vocal folds like a small tidal wave.

In my 35 years of researching the voice and teaching singers, I have found that any time a singer releases their abdominal pushing, singing becomes easier and their tone generally becomes fuller and more resonant.

This lack of abdominal pushing however needs to be replaced with a more holistic approach, one that utilizes the natural and factual design of your body. I’m referring to the fact that the majority of your lungs are located in your back. They are housed inside and affixed to the lining of your rib cage. When your ribs expand, they open your lungs, which pull in your breath. (Yes, the diaphragm does have something to do with this process as well but frankly, the rib movement is most important.)

If you breathe into your back and then sing, you will find a marked difference in how your voice responds. Just be sure to do this while permitting your abdomen to relax and move naturally rather than “work it.” For some, this can take practice as old manipulative habits are discovered and released.

For the rest of the story on this and fast acting exercises that help you work with your body’s natural breathing and sound-making design, use my book: The “Contemporary Vocalist” or the over 200 video lessons I’ve recorded in my interactive video exchange ArtistWorks vocal school.

Watch Jeannie's Free Vocal Lessons

3) Lack of Conditioning

Frequently singers try to get their voices to do things that they have not really conditioned the muscles of their voice to accomplish – though it is well within their physical capability. It is like this with any athlete. You have the muscles. They work a certain way. They have a potential. It is proper exercise, NOT just attempting to use them, that awakens the full potential. If, for example, you were to attempt performing as a hip hop dancer without any muscle development through limbering and strengthening exercises, you would see the correlation.

Well, vocal exercises – depending on what they are and how closely they work with the truth of the body – can definitely help. Your voice is the product of muscle actions, which, while small and hidden from view, can be developed. I have spent the majority of my life developing an approach that while based upon physical fact, is as well not based on style. This permits you to develop your whole voice and then “play it” the way you want as the creative, expressive singer that you are or want to be.

Wishing you the vocal freedom you deserve!

Jeannie Deva

Jeannie Deva is a celebrity master voice and performance coach, author, founder of The Deva Method ®, Complete Voice Technique for Stage and Studio™ and a recording studio vocal specialist who has worked with and been endorsed by engineers and producers of Aerosmith, Elton John, Bette Midler, Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones. Seen on E! Entertainment and TV Guide Channels, Jeannie has been interviewed as a celebrity guest on talk shows in the US, Europe and Venezuela. She is the author of the internationally acclaimed "Contemporary Vocalist" series and “Deva Method Vocal Warm-Ups and Cool-Downs” CD and her eBook: “Singer’s Guide to Powerful Performances.”  Jeannie teaches privately in Los Angeles and to students worldwide via her ArtistWorks Online Vocal School. -

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