By Cari Cole
Most singers who come to work with me land in 1 of 3 categories:
Group 1 has basic problems making their voice sound good. They are either struggling with a pinched tight nasal sound or are singing from their throats and can’t stop. They often have a lot of tension in their jaw, tongue and neck muscles are not breathing diaphragmatically. As a result, they also experience problems expanding their range and using all of their instrument. Their voices burn out quickly.
Group 2 are good singers but they want more out of their voice. They are smart enough to know that their voice could sound better if they knew the right techniques and got serious about a vocal regimen. These singers have studied some vocal technique but not thoroughly enough. They need more power, finesse, flexibility, riffing & improv know-how, phrasing prowess, and signature style.
Group 3 are touring singers who are struggling with wear and tear, vocal loss, hoarseness, and vocal problems. They sing 4-6 days a week trying to stay in good shape amidst the grueling high powered schedule of recording sessions, performances, radio shows, and TV shows. They are getting little sleep, struggling to stay vocally healthy and as a result, their voice is burning out and they are losing vocal consistency, high range and recovery time.
Here is the plan I put each of these groups on, while focusing more on the *starred sections for those with vocal problems, although all Groups walk through all 10 steps for the best results.
Your 10 Step Plan to Vocal Freedom in 2019.
1. * Stretching.
All singers must stretch. Imagine a runner who doesn’t stretch before the big race? Singers use the small muscles of the voice and breathing. If those muscles are tense and stiff it will result in loss of flexibility, range (high notes) and their voice will wear out quickly. The solution is stretching. Yoga is the best all-body stretch there is. Singers who practice yoga rarely lose their voices.
2. * Diaphragmatic Breathing.
I don’t care how many years you’ve studied (or not), almost 75% of all singers don’t know how to breathe into their diaphragm. I find that most voice teachers don’t really know how to teach diaphragmatic breathing and on top of that, most people’s diaphragms are locked due to tensions in the neck, back, and stomach. The journey to free your diaphragm starts with raising your chest to an elevated position (without arching your back) and exhaling without dropping your chest. Put your hands on your stomach and rib cage and try to move your stomach and rib outward on your inhale (most people’s stomachs move inward and their ribs don’t expand sideways enough). Watch my video on diaphragmatic breathing here to start mastering your breath.
3. * Warmups.
Warming up your voice is not for sissy’s ;). It’s smart. Imagine an athlete running a race without warming up. Kinda dumb right? The biggest problems can be eliminated with regular warmups. Ones that open your voice not wear it out. If you want to get the most out of your voice, warm up. Period. Once you get the right warm up and experience the benefits of an open throat and an open voice, you’ll never not warm up again. Click here for the best warmups on the planet! And it’s not just our opinion!
4. Vocal Building Exercises.
Before I was a vocal coach/teacher, when I was training as a singer, I studied as many techniques as I could get my hands on. I wanted to know what they all had to offer. From speech level singing to Linklater to belting to scatting and improv, I took a little bit from each training – the parts that worked. Then I found the exercises that would become the core of the vocal program I developed and have taught for almost 3 decades that has transformed thousands of singers’ voices worldwide including my own. They are the nuts and bolts of what develops the overtone series, strips away extraneous muscles and strengthens the little vocal muscles. With regular practice the results are extraordinary. Singers voices really change. I used to only make those exercises and the approach available within my private studio, but I have extended access to this system to artists in my Vocal Freedom Circle (ps. we’re just about to start the next run of the program. Click here to learn more or grab yourself a seat before it fills up!). For starters, look at these Howcast videos where I present some of the techniques and theories to practice.
5. * For Stubborn Issues: Massage, Acupuncture.
Sometimes singers have stubborn problems that require a little intervention. Nasality, hoarseness, vocal loss, fatigue, loss of range, and issues like swollen cords and nodules stem from deep contractions in the muscles of the voice and breathing as well as problems with the stomach like leaky gut (bad stomach bacteria) and other stomach problems that cause acid reflux and allergies. The best way to treat these issues is with deep tissue vocal massage, yoga, and modalities like acupuncture which target tension deep within the instrument and stomach issues. It’s a bit difficult to find people who are trained in vocal massage. I studied with a woman here in NY (now deceased) who trained me in vocal massage and there is a practitioner here in NY who practices a similar method which you can find out more about here. It can mean the difference in having a voice or not. I have massaged a voice back to life in as little as one hour in my studio more times than I can count. Acupuncture is a great alternative solution that is just as effective.
6. Ear Training.
Ear training is as important as vocal technique, especially for pitch. Ear training is the process of learning the major, minor and pentatonic scales which most pop, rock and R&B songs use. Imagine a guitar player trying to play without knowing their scales? Not a good scenario. It’s no different for singers. I start with the Nadia Boulanger exercises (which you can find online) and develop the minor and pentatonic (blues) scales from there.
7. * Speaking Exercises.
When it comes to vocal excellence we can’t forget about the speaking voice and its effect on singing. The speaking voice alone can ruin, or seriously impair one’s singing voice. It may not be an issue when you are singing in your living room, but in preparing a singer for touring, realigning the speaking voice, eliminating wear and tear from speaking can save your voice from burning out on tour. Some people’s speaking voice is such an issue that we have to fix that before we even dig into vocal technique. It’s called having a “high pressure” voice.
High-pressure voices use a lot of muscle tension just to speak and often hit the edges of the vocal cords together when they speak causing vocal loss. There is a really good book with some great exercises that I use in my studio: Is Your Voice Telling On You by Daniel R. Boone.
To have a great voice, you have to understand phrasing. Phrasing makes your voice “sound” good, no matter how good it sounds. I know, that sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true. You don’t have to have a great sounding voice to sound great if you know how to phrase. Great phrasing and great pitch and you’re all set. How do you learn to phrase? By understanding rhythm, iambic pentameter, and dynamics.
The best way to improve your voice is to record regularly, don’t just wait until you are in the recording studio. If you develop a regular routine of recording in your home, you’ll grow fast. We hear our voices mostly from inside our head and a little with the outer ear. That’s why when you first start recording it sounds funny. I like the Blue Microphone (a step up from a Shure SM58) that you plug directly into your computer and recommend either Garageband or Logic (a step up from Garageband) for your home recording studio.
10. Vocal Arranging.
The final step in the plan, the one that brings it all together is vocal arranging. This one you can’t do by yourself but is worth every penny. Vocal arranging is the process of taking an ordinary singer and making them stand out – even making their vocal sound extraordinary. It takes what a singer does naturally and improves it significantly. A vocal arranger (same thing as a vocal producer) decides how the artist will sing a song by arranging the vocal. It might be a line that the arranger thinks sounds better if the singer uses a vibrato in their voice or a wavery tone rather than straight. Maybe the note should be sung an octave higher, or add a breathy tone to the words. He may say “Hey, add a riff, right there, or an ooohh aahhh.” It brings out more emotion and helps the singer deliver a stunning vocal.
Click below for a chance to completely transform your vocal practice, health, and technique in an emmersive 6 month course with Mama Cari herself alongside a group of driven like-minded artists. The Vocal Freedom Circle: Free Your Voice in 6 Months.