Just Relax

Back to 'Things to Try' in 'Learn to Sing'


Speaking on pitch

The third part of the video, the "Hey There" vocal exercise, can be the start of other interesting ideas. If we start to think of speaking and singing as being parts of the same thing, then not only does it make it easier to sing, it also allows us to bring some of the techniques of dramatic speaking into singing.

When you get to a word or phrase that is difficult to sing, try speaking the troublesome words on pitch and then continue singing.

If you're trying to reach high notes or low notes, first keep in mind the "low larynx" ideas [see "The Sound of Your Voice" section], but start out speaking and then extend a vowel or two. For example, if you remember the "Mister Bill" routine from Saturday Night Live, you might recognize it as a low larynx high pitch character voice, so with the phrase, "Oh no! Mister Bill!" start by imitating the character voice, then extend the word "no" into a musical phrase.

We can think of singing as speaking on pitch with most of the spaces filled in with sustained vowels. Just as a fourth grader reciting poetry can be very rhythmic and yet monotonous, so our singing can be right on the beat and yet be lifeless. Instead, if we try speaking naturally with expression, but doing it on pitch, we can bring that expression into our songs.

Listen to the following clip from "My Fair Lady" and note how speaking and singing meld together.

When you get to a difficult word, pause and speak the word on pitch. You probably have tension from the previous word or perhaps anticipating the following word. Do it until the word sounds relaxed, then increase the vowel duration until you are singing it.

In order to sing high notes, you must be able to speak on that pitch. Practice speaking until it's easy and you like the sound.

Smile and say "Hey!" not "Cheese."

In Barbershop, we're always told to "Smile!" but smiling while singing is not easy, and it's not even clear some times how it is even possible. There are some voice teachers who say smiling while singing will ruin your tone, if not your voice. Others claim that smiling is a way to prevent going flat. So what's the deal?

We'll I found a nice reference that, for me at least, explains it well. You can click here for the full article, written by voice teacher Gilles Denizot. It has a lot to say about the "ng position" that Eric Arceneaux demonstrates in another video [in "The SounInside Pitchesd of Your Voice" section], but here are the parts that address smiling.

When the singer lets the lips spread transversally in an "east west" or horizontal position, he/she will most probably experience a spread tone, usually thin and warmth-deprived sounds...

The Italian School of singing recommends an "oval and vertical mouth shape". This specific oval and vertical position offers any singer a comfortable narrow feel and safety along with a better control on his or her vocal production.

It is interesting to point out the different role of the upper lip in comparison to the lower lip. A lower lip uncovering teeth indicates a depressed soft palate that is injurious classical singing. A collapsed soft palate makes singing difficult, especially in the high range. It is damaging not because of the color of sound it produces, but because when a singer feels that the tone is flat, which is most every time the indication that the soft palate crashed down, his/her usual reaction is to push air. Because the soft palate is low instead of lifted and spread, the singer experiences a feeling of vocal "heaviness" and pushes more air in order to blow the soft palate up. In comparison, a slightly raised upper lip often helps the singer to achieve a vigorous and dazzling sound.

When the zygomatic muscles or "cheek muscles under the eyes" are lifted, singing becomes easier because the soft palate is high situated. The notes benefit from a larger resonating space and there is no need to push tremendous amounts of breath through the vocal cords. I find that lifted cheek muscles have a direct bond with the appropriate opening of the mouth and with the correct activity of the lower jaw. When I lift my cheek muscles, I feel that I gain the ability to control my pronunciation better because it is one step towards the oval lips shape. Of course, when we lift the cheek muscles there is a risk that the mouth will spread (smile position). Using a mirror can help while checking the facial posture. When the cheek muscles are lifted and the mouth shape is oval, the lower jaw then assumes a slightly low and back position, which also helps to align the voice acoustically. I briefly need to mention that a spread and lifted soft palate is also the key to the slow discovery of the "up and over" feeling in singing. It is obvious when a singer is reaching the notes "from above" or "from below". The difference is enormous in terms of style and impact on the audience.

If the singer chooses to adopt the "high cheek" position over the unfortunate "smile position" (which spreads the lips), or "pulled down position" (the soft palate crashes down), the quality and sound of his/her voice improves at once.

So when we're asked to smile, it is this vertical position, with the top lip and high cheeks that we're trying for, not the wide cheezy grin. If all that is too much technical detail, then just pretend you're happily surprised and say "Hey!" and you'll be pretty close. I find this particularly useful in order to stay on pitch for sustained notes. See if it helps you.


We strive to share our emotions with our audience, but if we sing with tension in our voice, the audience hears that tension and feels that tension.

A tip of the hat to relaxing tension in your voice

When singing, one of the most difficult problems to fix is tension in your voice: stress, strain, tightness. Tension can create a break between your chest voice and your head voice. Instead of notes sounding free and easy, they sound forced, like you're reaching or pushing.

But even though you may recognize the problem, that doesn't mean you know how to fix it. You may not be able to relax your voice. You can't consciously manipulate all of the muscles in your throat.

But here's a trick that may help. It's remarkably simple and, at least for me, amazingly effective.

Let's take the phrase "Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby." There are some difficult jumps in there. For example, the first word. If your voice is tense, it may be hard to make that jump.

Now try it again, placing your hands behind your head like you've just been arrested. If the trick works for you, it should be easier to make that jump.

You don't even have to use both hands. The fingertips of one hand will do. Or you can even just lean against the wall with just your head touching the wall. By putting pressure against the back of your head, you relax the muscles in the front of your neck, and that's where singing comes from.

Of course you don't want to sing this way all of the time, but if you concentrate on that relaxed feeling in your throat, you can remember it, and eventually it becomes automatic. If you learn the feeling, you can make it happen anytime.

Sometimes--and here I speak from personal experience--the tension in your throat is a result of tipping your head back slightly without even knowing it. You may feel like your head is level, and you may even think so as you look in a mirror, but you have to have someone look at you from the side to really know.

Here's another interesting feature about tipping your head. Try this. Look in a mirror with a relaxed expression, not smiling or frowning. Notice as you tip your head back, the corners of your mouth look like they bend downward in a frown, and as you tip forward, the corners bend upward into a smile. So if someone tells you to "Smile!" and you think you already were, make sure you're not tipping your head back.

Some more things to try

Here's an exercise to relax your jaw

and a little fun to relax the rest of yourself!!