The Ins & Outs of Singing High & Loud

Updated: May 10, 2020


When a new student comes to his/her first lesson, one of the most frequent answers to the question, "Why are you seeking voice training?", is that the singer wants to learn how to sing high(er) and/or loud(er). That is understandable; audiences react strongly to high & loud singing, and it has been very prevalent in popular music for decades. In fact, it has become synonymous with "great singing ability". Some singers can do this naturally, but most singers who want to have this skill come to voice lessons. So here's what you need to know about acquiring (and keeping) that particular skill.

Now, for most singers, their request comes from an inability to sing upwards without an audible crack or flip in the middle of their range. They usually try to circumvent this problem by either a) singing louder and louder as they go up to try and "push" past the breaking point, but sacrificing upper range and comfort, or b) switching to a much lighter voice early on in their range, but sacrificing volume and presence, aka "power". So let's take a closer look at "range" and "power", and the sustainability of this type of singing.

1. Range

The "flip" or "crack" most untrained singers experience in the middle of their range is nothing unusual or worrisome, in fact that break will be erased completely with consistent voice training. Your voice teacher will work with you to learn how to optimize the way you inhale and exhale in order to sing well, and how to keep the vocal cords engaged properly, while teaching you how to relax all the upper body muscles that like to mess with your vocal cords' freedom by tensing around the larynx (your voice box, the part of your neck that moves up and down when you swallow).

It just so happens that your voice box has a double duty in our bodies. Its primary function is to act as a valve to make sure

that no solid or liquid particles enter your airways. If something goes wrong, well, you know how it feels when you swallow and it "goes down the wrong way"! In that case, the voice box needs to get whatever went down to your lungs back out, and fast. How does it do that? By triggering a coughing fit. Everything, including the vocal cords, shut down hard so you can build up air pressure inside your lungs, and then you force the air out with each cough until the intruder is cleared from your lungs. If your larynx didn't know how to handle its primary job, you wouldn't survive long.

But it also has a secondary job, which is to produce sound so we can communicate verbally. This does not require anywhere close to the level of air pressure that we use for coughing or sneezing, for example. In fact, the voice cannot function properly with insufficient or excessive air pressure. There is a small range of usable air pressure for talking/singing, and when you cross the upper limit, your voice box has to work so hard to try and hold back the air to produce sound that it literally squeezes shut, and your vocal cords can no longer vibrate to make sound. It calls on the help of all kinds of upper body muscles to do this, and the singer feels like he/she is "hitting a wall". And by now you've probably figured out that "pushing harder" to get past it, is futile.

It's easy to see how this works. Just make a lip bubble, or lip trill, aka "blow a raspberry". If you don't blow enough air, your lips won't vibrate. If you blow too much air, you either blow your lips apart or have to press them together so hard that they're not free to vibrate anymore.

So the first priority while learning how to keep your voice from cracking or flipping, is to learn how to maintain everything around the voice box as relaxed as possible, particularly your tongue, jaw, and neck. This needs to be done at a lower volume at first, so the larynx doesn't switch over to survival mode. The priority here is freedom (effortless singing), not power. That will come later. The thing is, this first step takes time. Have patience during this process, and it will pay off in a big way! (there are ways to cheat around the break if you have an audition tomorrow, but those "quick fixes" shouldn't be taken as a permanent way to sing.)

2. Power

Congratulations, you've been patient, and your crack is gone for good! Or is it? Does it come back when you attempt to get loud? Imagine that instead of taking voice lessons, you were going to the gym to strengthen your arm muscles. Heck, if you want to really "belt it out", you're going for body-builder arms! You're probably going to put waaaay too much weight on your bar, and use all your back muscles in addition to your not-yet-strong biceps to lift the weight. Your trainer will advise you to back off the weight and start with something almost comically light until you learn the proper form (no back muscle engagement, only biceps). Once you're mastered it, you will add a little more weight, and begin this process again until your back muscles stop engaging. It's how you build up your strength in the right places while avoiding serious injury.

With singers, this process is quite similar. Think of the biceps as your vocal cords, your back muscles as the upper body muscles, especially around the neck and mouth, and the amount of weight as your volume. By now you've learned how to keep everything relaxed while singing at low volume, so your next goal will be a medium volume, and then, finally, your loud volume. You have to take it one step at a time t