Chris and Steve explain why it’s important to work on the bottom end of the vocal range just as much as the top of your range.
As a singing nation, we love a high note. We’re so jealous of those singers who can bust them out with ease whilst doing cartwheels (hello, Beyoncé!) that we hit our vocal coach with requests for “more vocal range, please”.
Admittedly, songs without high notes would lack a certain thrill and we are suckers for a thrill. However, by placing so much focus on high notes, we could be neglecting a part of our voice that’s just as important… the bottom end.
It’s easier to extend the vocal range upwards
Many singers are able to reach their very bottom notes quite readily and without training. Yes, they might sound fluffy and rubbish, but they’re still there. As much as we think going upwards is a big struggle, there’s more limitation to extending the bottom end of the vocal range.
It’s difficult to extend our vocal range downwards because our vocal folds become far too floppy in this area. It’s like unwinding a guitar string: it’ll drop lower in pitch until, eventually, it’s too loose to be twanged or produce a pitch at all. When our voices hit this point, either nothing comes out or we go into vocal fry (a.k.a. Kim Kardashian).
The only ‘solution’ we’ve found to take the voice beyond this physical limitation is to purposely contract the flu, or only perform on a horrendous hangover (we’re being silly, of course. but have you noticed how low you can sing when you have a cold?)
Achieving good high notes can seem scary. Increasing the upper range is often seen as an elusive goal for singers. Physiologically, high notes require the vocal folds to stretch. If we develop the muscles that stretch the vocal folds well and balance them against the vocal fold muscles that they are stretching, then we are able to raise pitch very easily. By routinely stretching the vocal fold tissue we can change the vocal folds’ collagen density (a topic to be covered in a future article) which, in turn, will raise pitch even further. So, we’re not fighting the same battle when trying to add more low notes. Once those vocal folds are floppy, there’s no changing it. No more bottom end.
The case for training the bottom voice
A ‘Classical’ mistake
Some singers have never truly found the bottom of their vocal range. Examples of this are commonly found in classically-trained female singers and timid personality-types who speak and/or sing without engaging ‘chest resonance’.
Even though the singer may not want to use this rich-sounding register when singing, it is important to train this region for overall vocal health and longevity. Living in an extreme is not a great situation for any muscle relationship.
Using head voice exclusively in speech or singing is like only ever training one body part at the gym. If you’ve done that (hands in the air bench pressers!), you will know that injuries are easier to come by and shoulder joints become unhealthy. It may also mean you won’t be strong enough to handle sports or physical activities that require more than press-ups can provide. Accessing the bottom register in practice is therefore crucial for even the classical female singer who may seldom use that register or quality when singing.
A mixture of semi-occluded vocal tract exercises, open vowels, short staccato scales and even shorter legato scales are examples of a good bottom end warm-up routine. Don’t worry about going high yet. Stay under your break and get your voice grounded.
What goes up must come down
Loads of male and female singers actually have a chest voice, but find it hard to access with clear tone. Even if the speaking voice is little light or airy, there is still usually some sort of ‘chest voice’ present.
Vocal injury aside, this can also happen because the singer doesn’t reset their voice back to its normal state after singing. If we sing a lot, especially in the higher range, the muscles that raise pitch (cricothyroid muscles, for the geeks) might not relax again straight away. This leaves the vocal folds stiffened, which in turn will cause the speaking voice to be higher and lighter.
In case you’re thinking, “That’s me” and are worrying that you’re not normal, be reassured that even our voices are like this at the end of a long teaching day. We’re up at high C and beyond for ten hours a day for goodness sake. The reason we don’t suffer vocal issues and can always access our full singing capacity is because we make sure that this residual tension does not carry over to the next day. How? The warm down, or reset, routine. We stabilise the lowest notes by sustaining a deep hum and reconnect to vocal fry for a few minutes. As a test, if you can’t access your vocal fry after singing (and normally don’t have any issues finding it) you’ll know your priority is to release that stiffness and tension.
The resting larynx position
Singing high often raises the larynx from its resting position. If it remains up there, then we can find it hard to access our lowest notes. Using closed vowels, straw exercises and ‘NG’ glides will help us find the bottom again. A little bit of a hooty, operatic tone might also assist us in getting those muscles that raise the larynx to relax and help the bottom end get back in business.
It’s hard to deny physiology
A fairly strong case for training the lower end of your voice is that it is a substantial part, if not the majority, of your voice. Male voices are obvious examples of this. We have larger larynxes, bigger spaces and thicker vocal folds. If we ignore the low part of our voice whilst training we may sound thin. This might impact on vocal fold stability and efficiency as we ascend through the middle and upper ranges. This also impacts the female voice to varying degrees.
Understanding your voice type and the full extent of your bottom range will help you access your full vocal potential.
Work on your bottom everyday…
…said the Beach Body champion of 2017! #dadjokes
In all seriousness, when we focus on our low range as part of our daily routine, we can only add positively to our voice. If your voice is low in the morning, then great! Use it! Ours is too. It doesn’t mean you’re ill (although it could if this is unusual). It is more likely that your vocal folds have reset to their natural state overnight. It may also mean you’d rather stay in bed! There’s no harm in humming and gliding around the depths of your low range during the AM to train in a clear tone, lowered larynx and vocal fold closure at the extreme end. Rest on the absolute lowest notes before it all turns to mush, and before you tackle your upper range. Tone and function in the higher notes will only benefit from having a good, easy, but not overly-rich chest voice.
In the PM, at the end of the gig, or at the end of the day is the other time to do this training. Here, the purpose is resetting. We definitely do not want the tensions of singing to be accumulating day after day, as it can lead to chronic muscle tension and the potential of vocal injury.