High Notes. They separate the men from the boys, or the women from the girls, or..whatever, you get the point.
Why high notes matter
Why do high notes often mark out someone as a pro singer? What about all the other abilities and disciplines that professional singers develop and hone? Why do solid, reliable high notes show to all that we mean business?
I believe it lies in the simplicity of it. There are many qualities in a highly trained voice that are hard to gauge for the amateur. Tone, timing, timbre, rhythm, coloratura, range, resonance are technical words that require training and a sensitive ear to discern. High notes, on the other hand are simple for even the most unmusically gifted to recognize. Almost everyone can be awed by a singer hitting that top C, or nailing the high chorus part of a contemporary song.
In the Opera world there is almost an obsession with the high Tenor and Soprano notes, such that if a singer sings a flawless piece otherwise but messes up the high note, they are considered to have performed poorly.
In Pop & Rock, nailing a high chorus marks out the difference between an amateurish attempt and someone who the audience feels knows what they are doing.
Conversely, we’ve felt the tangible embarrassment of a singer who couldn’t quite make a high note or passage of a song. Whether they are a Bass, Baritone, Tenor, Contralto, Mezzo-Soprano, or Soprano you know when a singer either chickens out or cracks. And it’s really painful.
So if you want to make your mark as a singer, whatever the genre, it pays to be seriously on top of your high notes. Great high notes mean you can excite and amaze your audience. Remember, being a singer is about telling a story. High notes convey excitement and ecstasy. Without high notes, you lose a major tool in your ability to move your audience.
Why you can’t just learn how to sing high notes alone
Singing solid high notes is an extension of healthy and effective technique. A good teacher’s main purpose is to give you a reliable technique. Related: what to look for in.. You can’t just apply the principles below and expect to knock out high C’s like Bon Jovi and Pavarotti without working on the whole voice. Therefore, the purpose of this post is to highlight some of the high note pitfalls that vocalists can have whilst actively working on a complete technique.
How to master high notes – Mental Approach
For this part, I’m going to focus on the highest male voice, the Tenor. You should speak with your teacher for how the high note ranges would translate for your voice type.
The truth is that high notes do not exist as an entity that is separate from the rest of the voice that requires its own development.
This is key, not just because it is true, but it is the over-focus on high notes itself that cause mental blocks to occur for so many when trying to sing high notes well. Naturally, once we get into a region of the voice that feels high, we disregard our previous positive habits that we were doing until now. We try to use hacks or tricks to compensate for inadequate technique.
Here I am singing a scale. All sounds fine in the lower scales, until I get into the passagio, or bridge area of the voice. Once I start doing scales that cross this region, I over-think the process, and start taking in too much air. This is a common problem.
You’ll notice that the voice almost ‘quivers’ on the sustained Ab. There is too much air being released too fast. There is no way any singer could sustain this type of singing for more than a short while
Here’s how to do it correctly. A clean execution of the A and B. I’m not breathing too heavily, and as a result, I have a more balanced volume through the scale. It doesn’t matter what genre I’m singing. A measured mental approach with all the correct elements (Mental Approach, Throat&Jaw and Support) results in successful high notes.
How to master high notes – Throat & Jaw
Correct space in the throat and jaw are always essential, no matter the pitch you are singing. However, whilst you may be able to get away with a less open jaw in the lower and middle ranges, once you hit the upper registers, things get difficult without the correct space.
As you ascend the scale, your vocal folds vibrate faster to produce higher frequency sounds. As a result, more air is needed to produce the same volume of sound at the higher frequency. To avoid a ‘pinched’ sound quality, we need to open the back of the throat and relax the Jaw. This allows more space for the air to pass through up from the larynx, resulting in a rounded, full sound.
Tip: A relaxed larynx or back of the throat is often likened to the ‘pre-yawn’. The pre yawn is how your throat feels just before you yawn. To give some context, when you actually yawn, your larynx is in a very low position. When you swallow, it is in a very high position. We are looking for something in between, but a little closer to the open yawn position.
How to master high notes – Support
The correct vocal support is critical for at any pitch. Not only does unsupported voice sound weaker, it also can be the root cause for many vocal issues. We always want to exert our muscular effort in the muscles used to keep the ribs expanded. Sound will always escape, we just want to slow down or regulate it’s escape. (Note: If air didn’t escape, you couldn’t make a sound at all, because sound is made by air passing through the vocal folds)
Once you go up into your higher registers, lack of support doesn’t just sound weaker or cause issues, it can actually make you crack. Why?
Well, it’s about air flow again. Without adequate support, you cannot maintain the higher flow of air needed to keep your vocal chords vibrating at the higher frequencies. All the air escapes too quickly, and the chords either resort to falsetto or simply give way entirely. Whilst building the habit of support, it becomes a more conscious effort to give more support as you ascend the scale. Without support, you lose air very fast as your rib cage (lungs) contract, so you need to work against it by giving a little more support as you ascend in pitch.
How to master high notes – Vowels
Vowels go hand in hand with Jaw/throat position. There is a school of thought that talks about ‘covering’ the sound as the tenor voice travels through the passaggio or bridge. This is approximately F# -> Ab. As an example, the Uh vowel would tend a little more toward the Oh vowel, in order to create more space in the throat to navigate this difficult area. Essentially in this approach, vowels are modified to avoid the spreading or widening of sound that might occur and create an unfocused, ugly sound. Consistent with the first two approaches here, there is a better method that avoids over-focus on high notes.
As we ascend the scale, we open our Jaw. As a natural consequence the vowel shapes you make with your mouth should become longer. This will create the necessary space for these higher notes. The key is keeping the vowel shapes that are made with your lips consistent. Again, this is something you should always do, regardless of the pitch. As you go up, you just make sure you keep doing it. You don’t do anything special or different. Rather, do what you are supposed to do and focus on that. Then the high notes, in time, will be sung well and reliably.
This is true in classical/opera styles but also in pop. Especially in Pop, overt vowel modification simply doesn’t fit the style at all. It’s so important that we have a technique that can consistently handle any genre, without singing with one way in Classical, one way in Pop, and one way in Rock, etc.
When we sing high notes, we redouble our focus on three key areas of correct singing technique. Throat/jaw opening, Strong support, and focused, rounded vowels. We don’t make changes or start doing things different.
UPDATE: Did you like this post? Want to sing EVEN Higher? Click here for a post on How to Sing Very High Notes!
How do you find high notes? Are you still working on hitting certain notes? Or are you a seasoned pro who has found a reliable approach and would like to share it? Leave a comment and let’s get the discussion going…Follow Me!
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