Vocal Strain

Strain. Some (or rather many) of us are good friends with that little devil. It wraps itself around our neck like a boa constrictor, squeezing the blood into our pained faces. That may be a little dramatic, but let’s be honest; it’s a pain in the butt right?

But what exactly is strain? There are several definitions to strain, but here’s a good one: “A force tending to pull or stretch something to an extreme or damaging degree.” One could relate it to tension, tightness or over-exertion. You get the idea.

As singers, we are often putting our voices under unnecessary strain. Singing is massively underestimated as a task, and it requires much more balance, attention and training than it is usually given, especially if you’re singing the high and loud stuff. If the delicate balance of coordination in the vocal muscles is off in some way, then vocal strain is likely to occur as a compensation for that. But don’t feel disheartened! Almost everyone has some kind of imbalance going on somewhere. It’s impossible to be perfect (unless you’re us, of course). As teachers, part of our mission is to ensure that singers are singing with as little excess tension as possible. The reason I use the word ‘excess’ is simple: singing actually relies on tension, but in the right muscles and to the right degree. The only reason we can even achieve a higher pitch is by increasing tension in the vocal cords! So, with a tension-based activity, we can so easily generate tension elsewhere by accident. That’s the singers predicament right there!

Why vocal strain? Queue another terrible analogy…

To dig into the causes a little deeper, we must first acknowledge and accept that the human voice is one of the most adjustable instruments ever created. It’s rarely in a fixed position.

It has a number of parts that make it work and a prolific singer is constantly doing a fine job of managing these moving parts. In short, think of a singer as a chef. If the toast pops up before the beans are done, and you didn’t take the butter out the fridge early enough you’re going to have a pretty miserable meal.

We know what you’re thinking “what sort of chef cooks beans on toast anyway?” That and, “how on earth does that relate to vocal strain?” In answer to question two: there are many parts that can contribute to vocal strain, either on their own or normally all at once. If the larynx is moving around too much when you sing there’s a chance strain is on its way. The thyroarytenoid muscle (or TA, the one that works the low notes), if over engaged, will assist in making things difficult for you. This is the case with singers who yell! If you have too much extrinsic muscle activity (i.e. the muscles of the neck are getting involved) there’s a chance you’ll be feeling some squeeze too. Lastly, if you blow to much or too little air, you’re likely to see the pain face again.

All that said, there is one more main culprit. Sorry to get all ‘sciencey’ again, but the resonance can also play a massive role in just how much we strain. As the resonance shifts at the passaggio (see our article in iSing issue 3 for more on this), we are at risk of “hanging on to the bottom voice”. If we aren’t well-versed in allowing this movement of resonance we’re likely to needlessly invite strain as a way of holding our voices together during this weird transition. The truth is that we don’t need to hold it together. Trusting that it will, using good voice training tools, is something we all need to get better at.

NB: The next time someone says “singing is easy”, you have our permission to slap them in the face.

Anti-strain strategies

OK, so firstly we need to keep an eye on a few things to ensure we are reducing tension the best way we can. Then there are a few tools to help us rid those hidden tensions that you can’t just ‘think away’.

1. Be Prepared

  • Posture – To begin, we can pinch something from Alexander Technique. Stand up and position yourself as if you are hanging from a string that’s attached to the top of your head. This will help to position your head, sit your shoulders down and align your back. All of these can reduce stress on the vocal apparatus.
  • Breathe – Take a full breath quietly through a ‘yawn’ throat shape. Be sure to let this breath feel like it fills your lower chest and expands your back a little. Keep the belly relaxed even whilst singing, and be sure that your rib cage and shoulders aren’t moving up and down much as you breathe in and out. This all has a positive effect on the positioning of the vocal tract, and allows you to manage the air pressure below the vocal cords needed for good singing.
  • Relax – This does apply to your whole body for now, but we think the key is in the mind. Yes you’re going to try and sing a big one, but you don’t need to tense up and freak out as preparation for the note. It’s just a note. Care less about it.
  • Warm up – If you have a great physical and vocal warm up that you find easy and relaxing then make sure you do it before you begin. A lack of warm up is a huge contributor to pulsating veins in your forehead! Check out issue 1 of iSing for some warm up ideas.

Tension Tools

  • Larynx positioning – This is a singing teacher staple. Some call it witchcraft. For someone who strains a bit, a move of the larynx can have a massive effect on muscular tension and resonance, and hence ease. Most will opt for the ‘dumb’ or ‘hooty’ tone to lower the larynx and reduce strain. However, a small bunch of singers do better using a twangy witch-like tone to help adjust. Experiment away but be aware, these sounds are temporary and should be dropped for your normal vocal tone as soon as strain is less present.
  • Reduce the volume and stop pushing – Singing loud often feels really awesome. Like a good type of effort right? But unless the singer is trained, it usually sounds (and looks) the opposite of how it feels. Singers look red, get out of breath and go really flat. Consider turning down your effort, avoid pushing and lower the volume for a moment. Enough so that your voice relaxes and you find that more subtle place and more importantly, so you’re NOT straining anymore. But don’t fret y’all. In time you’ll be able to build some beef back into those notes without strain, but first you have to take it slow and steady.
  • Embrace your head voice – My what? Check out issue 5 of iSing for a head voice explanation, but head voice is the key to comfortable range. And what are we usually straining for? A high note! So, if you don’t have a clear sounding head voice already in place then get it on top of your list. If you have some kind of clear head voice then embrace it for a while. Let yourself go there for a bit instead of dragging your poor little cords to the pitch. It’s OK, it may disagree with everything that you want to achieve but believe us, it’s the start of something huge.
  • Visual clues – Keep an eye on yourself by watching yourself sing in the mirror. Look out for the jaw (clenched or jutting out?), neck, chin (raising high or pulling down?), shoulders (shrugging with the raising pitch?) or any other part of your body that is flailing with the high note. Consciously relax the offending body part(s) and let only your vocals do the work!

Open your mind and stick with it!

Vocal strain comes in many forms and working through it can feel like an absolute labour of love. There’s also many more nifty little tricks that can help you relax, so scour the internet for the weird and wonderful. Hopefully some of the tips above will aid you in your quest for freedom but, if you can, we also suggest you take a look at our article in iSing issue 3 too. This gives advice on how to balance the passagio through vowel tuning for a more advanced approach to balancing the voice. Good luck on your journey!


Chris Johnson and Steve Giles are both experienced vocal coaches working in Southampton and London. They are with the Vocology In Practice teacher network and specialise in training clients in advanced vocal technique, style and improvisation. They are co-founders and presenters of the popular iTunes singer’s interest podcast The Naked Vocalist. As well as coaching and podcasting they are also in-demand performers and manage their own successful soul acts.