How to sing high notes
Comment chanter les aigus

© Karen Mercedes 1997

Four messages from Karen Mercedes to Vocalist, sent between March and June 1997.
Quatre messages de Karen Mercedes, envoyés à Vocalist entre mars et juin 1997.

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Date: Mon, 31 Mar 1997 18:28:19 -0500 (EST)
From: Karen Mercedes
Subject: Re: Closing of voice in upper range??

Sirens, yodels, and yawns (SYY[tm]). Mainly, the idea is to vocalise in ways in which it's virtually impossible to "tighten up".

First, get that "about to yawn" feeling. This is where you "unhinge" the jaw, totally loosen up the lower jaw (that "floppy jaw" feeling), "raise" the soft palate, and drop the larynx. You'll know you're there if you find yourself unable to keep from yawning.

Now, keeping that feeling, sing a siren from G below middle C to G above. Do it on "ee" or "ah", but most importantly just let it happen. Open the mouth, think the siren, and sing it. Don't worry about beauty - just keep the yawny feeling, and also feel how the sound travels up into the crown of your head (if you're really sirening on a yawny feeling, this is probably what it will feel like). The goal is to "aim" those high notes out the top of your head. Do this again and again, going up a half step each time (G to G# to A to A#, etc.), until you "top out". Again, beauty of sound, sustained sound, vibrato - none of this is the point. The point is to let the voice soar naturally, without *trying*.

The yodel: With the same freedom and lack of concern for beauty - and the same "yawny" feeling to start. Yodel on 1-4-1-4-1 (e.g., middle C to F and back). Yodel fast, don't try to sustain, get vibrato, etc. Again, the point is to feel - and hear - the top notes: placement, and sound quality. Healthy top notes do *not* sound "big" - certainly not as big as your middle notes. Healthy top notes can even sound thin, whistle-like, and seem as if they're not very powerful, or lack vibrato. It will take some time to trust them - and you must rely on your voice teacher and/or a tape recorder to prove to yourself that the sound that feels "right" but sounds "small" in your head actually sounds *right* to others.

I'm not at a point where I really trust - or can even consistently recreate - my good top notes yet. I keep thinking I've got to make a bigger, richer sound, one that sounds in my head the way my middle voice sounds in my head. But high notes produced that way have a few tell-tale flaws:

1) They take too much breath to produce;
2) They sound harsh on tape;
3) They make me pull in on the ribs, instead of supporting from the lower abdomen;
4) I can't sustain them very long (related to #1).

When I produce a high note correctly, I can hold it much longer than I can a "pushed" high note. Also, I feel it "ringing" almost exclusively "in my skull" - I don't feel anything around the roof of the mouth, or in the throat. Inside my head, it almost sounds like a whistle, but on tape, it sounds like one of those lovely Joan Sutherland top notes.

Karen Mercedes

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Date: Tue, 22 Apr 1997 14:34:20 -0400 (EDT)
From: Karen Mercedes
Subject: Re: Tight throat

The "tightness" the throat is usually accompanied by a tightness or rigidity in the jaw, and with lack of proper breath support - all problems I've worked at overcoming myself. Here are some of the techniques that work for me:

  1. Continually being aware of how my jaw feels. Unhinging and reunhinging it regularly as I sing (the test is how freely you can move it from side to side as you sing a vowel sound).

  2. Continually striving for that "yawny" feeling as I sing - this comes when you unhinge the jaw, lift the cheeks, and raise the soft palate. An exercise that helps as you practise is to set up the right facial/mouth dynamics, then to snort very gently (light a tiny horse) through your nose before inhaling for the first note. This little snort (silent - it's just an exhalation of breath, not of sound) not only loosens up the soft palate, but also "connects" the lower abdomen.

  3. As you sing up, think about the notes floating out through the top of your skull, not being pushed forward through your mouth.

  4. Get used to the idea that the higher the note, the "smaller" the sound will be in your head. THink of a funnel. The low notes are the wide end.
    As you sing up the scale, the funnel narrows - as does the relative "size" of the notes you hear in your head. Get your teacher to listen as you do this. If you do it right, the highest notes will sound almost whistle-like in your head, but with "float" out easily - you won't notice vibrato, or overtones, or anything - but you won't have to push or tighten anything to get them. And your teacher will confirm, if you do this right, that the *acoustics* are perfect in the notes. You won't hear that at all - you'll hear small, thin (but NOT breathy), whistle/siren-like.

  5. Which brings me to "the siren". This is a great exercise for freeing up ease at the top sans tightness in the jaw and throat. Just...siren. Make a siren noise, with the top note being as high as you can go. Don't push - we aren't striving for volume or beauty here. Just have fun with it. Imagine you're a police car rushing to the murder scene.

  6. Up against the wall. This is a great exercise to get the "connection" going between upper body and lower abs. Stand with your back to the wall - - or, accurately, your shoulders and back pressed to the wall to the startof your lower back curve. The rest should be slightly away from the wall (your heels should be about 6" to 12" from the wall). Your shoulders should be touching the wall, pressed back (but not forced), and if possible the back of your head should also be touching (not essential, particularly when you start trying this exercise). You should feel like your back is "splayed" flat against the wall - the ribs are wide and open in back. Now start your sound. You will notice that you *have* to use the lower abdomen to start and support the sound. Because you're "up against the wall" you can't collapse your chest, pull in your ribs, etc. - all of which go along with tightening the throat and jaw. Sing in this position when you practise - I mean a whole song. Then sing standing away from the wall, and notice how you maintain the position unconsciously (or you may have to think about it a little - remember how it felt against the wall, and try to keep that physical dynamic when you're just standing).

  7. Variation: On the floor - again, the goal is to get the shoulders and upper back spread and flat on the floor, and to make the lower abdomen work. Sing a song in this position (knees are raised slightly, and apart - not leaning together against each other). Keep your breathing in mind - and the raised palate, unhinged jaw, etc. Again, your lower abs will *have* to do all the work (which is what they're good for). You may find it a bit harder to sing your highest notes on the floor than against the wall - this is because you don't get the support from your leg muscles. But again, you *do* get to feel that lower ab support.

  8. Chest up: Don't let that chest cave in, or pull in on the diaphragm (actually, the muscle in front of it), to get that big sound. If you do this, the throat will tighten, the jaw will tighten, and you'll be getting a big sound (big in your mind's ear, at least) - but it won't be a good or well-produced sound. Keep that chest up. Think of a strutting pigeon, and mimic that kind of chest - proud, lifted. This doesn't mean hunching up the shoulders - the shoulders should be dropped, relaxed. But the goal is to lift the ribs off the lower organs, freeing that entire lower abdomen area and musculature around the back of your lower ribs up so they can be as flexible as possible. When you breath, breath into those muscles in your lower back - feel them expand when you inhale, and keep that expanded feeling while you start the sound by tautening your lower abdomen (and for women, the pubo-coccyxial muscle - the one that runs between legs from back to front - is also a good note-starter, particularly if the notes are high - a little "twang" inside there can work wonders) and possibly a very small tautening of the buttocks just at the point where they go between your legs in back (not a *SQUEEZE*, just a kind of flex of the muscle).

Now, that's a lot of physiology to keep track of when you sing. The thing is to keep track of it all while singing your exercises - I mean easy ones like "5-4-3-2-1" scales on "ee" and "ah". Concentrate - and yet, don't concentrate so hard that it's so intent that nothing comes freely. It's a delicate balance. Fast scales can help "shake things out" to prevent trying to over-control the sound. Trust it. It's just exercises, after all, not a Met audition. Dare to make ugly sounds - but let them be free, easily produced, well supported sounds.

For high notes, a few other exercises have helped me free up the top of my voice:

  1. The Yodel - tried, true, and recommended. - 1-4-1-4-1-4-1-4-1 - starting with the note that's at the top of your middle range for the "1", and going up by half steps until you "max out". No forcing of those "4"s. If you have to do anything to your mouth except maybe unhinge the jaw a little to "reach" the high notes, you're doing it wrong. Anyway, you don't "reacH' for the high notes in a yodel, you *alight* on them.

  2. The following arpeggio:

    1-3-5-8-7-5-4-2-1 - just barely touching that top note when it gets in stratospheric range, but definitely singing it. It should be the same top note you get in the siren and the yodel - almost whistly sounding in your head.

    and also:

    1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1

    5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5

    1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 (hold the 9 for a beat)

    Do these arpeggios quickly, just touching on the top note each time. Then, when you're confident you're getting the top notes correctly, hold them slightly each time - *WITHOUT* changing a single thing about how you produce them - no jaw gymnastics, pulling, tightening, etc. *NO* pushing. Just let the sound "float" evenly, and above all keep that lower ab support going, and the chest up like a horny male pigeon's.

Karen Mercedes

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Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 16:44:09 -0400 (EDT)
From: Karen Mercedes
Subject: Re: Range

Aren't high notes fun?

I've found some things that are helping me produce acoustically-beautiful "trouble" notes:

1) "Aim" the note towards the top of my head. This is a placement thing. Usually, when I place notes, I aim for my upper teeth, but with my highest notes, I am only successful if I feel almost as if I'm projecting them beyond me, i.e., towards a point aove my head.

2) Trust trust trust. Don't try to control the note. Control everything you can - i.e., the breath support, the open throat, the raised palate, the loose jaw, that little "flick" of the pubo-coccyxial muscle. But don't try to "grab onto" that note and make it come out. Instead, just open your mouth, start the breath, and *think* the note, and let it happen. Don't change anything once you've got it started correctly - don't start pushing more breath through the folds, don't try to refocus placement, or put "spin" on the note.

3) Play with sirens and yodels. I find the best way to feel how the highest notes are *supposed* to feel (and how they should sound in my head) is to do sirens and yodels to get those notes first. The idea is to just touch on the highest notes quickly the first few (100) times. Then to sustain them only slightly - without making any changes to anything.
If you've hit the note right when you siren or yodel, keep exaclty that amount of breath support - no more, no less - exactly that mouth, facial, and body posture - no changes - and just go ahead an sustain briefly at first, over and over, until you can do it consistently, and then a bit longer, and again repeat until it's consistent.

4) Use a tape recorder to record when you're doing it right. What you hear in your head will sound small and not very pretty. That's okay - because what everyone else hears is probably lovely. You need to hear this on tape to prove it to yourself (this is part of the trust thing).

5) Sing towards the next note. If you've got a phrase with a high G in it, don't sing towards the G, but towards the note after the G. If it's the last note of the phrase, sing towards the rest or breath. The G is just a stepping stone on the way. Don't obsess over it.

6) Move around - walk, swive your hips, sway, dance, whatever. I find there's a tendency if I stand absolutely still thinking about breath support and open throat and raised palate, etc., and then try to sing a high note, I end up strangling it, tensing up everything, and supporting my breath from the chest up. It's a kind of reverse psychology, I tyhink - - the more I worry, the harder it is to do exactly what I'm trying to do.

7) Think about the music of the phrase. Don't think of it in terms of "note" "note" "note" "note". Think the entire phrase in your mind's ear before you open your mouth to sing. Then sing what you heard in your head. Keep moving as you do this - make movement part of the musical phrase you hear in your head - and you'll find it much easier to get the highest notes.

8) Never reach for a high note. Never "hit" a high note. Always "Alight" on a high note - imagine your voice is a bubble riding a steady wave of breath. The high note is on the surface of the breath - the voice lands gently on it, then bounces off again. When you vocalise, vocalise as high as you can and then think about going a half step or whole step higher. Better yet, don't look at the piano at all - just sing up and up and up (yodels, sirens, arpeggios). Let the notes just bore their little laser-like hole through the top of your skull each time and shimmer out into space. Don't try to hold them inside your head. Play around with these images and see if any of them help you. "Conquering" high notes is as much a psychological coup as a technique coup.

9) Don't sweat it. If you can afford to take a bit of time off from the note, do it. Work on other parts of the piece. Work on high note exercises like the siren and yodel and arpeggios with ever-higher top notes. Give yourself time to build up the "muscles" you need to sing high notes easily, and when you can do them consistently in your vocalises, then go back and put that high note into the piece of music where it belongs. Don't do it 20 times in a row the first time you succeed. Do it once - maybe a second time, just to prove you've done it, and move on. High notes are just notes - no less or more important than low notes or middle notes. I think we tend to obsess over them more, which makes them that much harder to do. It gives them an artificial value and power over us - as I said, it's probably more a psychological problem than a physiological/technique problem. It's much easier to trust the chest and middle ranges, because what you hear "inside your head", while not exactly what your audience hears, at least resembles it. But well produced super high notes sound nothing in your head like they do to your audience. So you're going on a kind of "blind faith" ("deaf" faith?). Trust your teacher. Trust what you feel when you know you've done it right (and you'll know when your teacher/tape recorder tells you you've done it right). And don't judge how it sounds in your head. *Hear* how it sounds, because that's the sound you want to reproduce. But don't expect it to be a big sound or a beautiful sound. Indeed, if it's big, resonant, and "spinning" in your inner ear, then you're not doing it right, because it's not projecting where it needs to go.

Karen Mercedes

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Date: Tue, 24 Jun 1997 23:18:05 -0400 (EDT)
From: Karen Mercedes
Subject: Re: Those high notes

I'm not a soprano, but a mezzo, but I've been making a lot of "breakthroughs" lately in my top notes, and I'd say your teacher is right to an extent about the notes coming more easily and consistently with experience/practice.

However, this doesn't just mean singing them the wrong way over and over and over. I've been working with my teacher on all sorts of little ways in which I can free up my top notes - and after about six months of really focussing on this, all the little "tricks" finally seem to have coalesced into a solid technique. Just in the past month, I added not only a half-step, but a step and a half to the very top of my range (I used to "max out" on the high B flat - I'm now "maxing out" on the D above it). I definitely think this is symptomatic of doing something "right". I also find the high Gs, As, and B flats just floating out of me without much effort.

Basically, I find three things are definitely critical to my high note success:

1) Chest up - if the chest "collapses", the high notes don't come.

2) Sense of elongation in lower back - basically what I call the Alexander back, with no sway back, and a very slight sense of the buttocks right where they go between the legs being "tucked under" me.

The combination of 1 and 2 gives my ribs the most flexibility for expansion all the way down to the upper abdomen. I think about breathing into my lower back. Also, when I have time between phrases for a good deep breath, I make sure I allow my stomach to relax just slightly, so I'm not constricting my ability to breathe down as far as possible in front as well. Then I stay expanded, and keep that sense that the breath is controlled by the lower abdomen muscles, not by pulling in on the muscle in front of the diaphragm (old bad habit), or by squeezing in on the ribs (another old bad habit).

3) Unhinging the jaw - Keeping the "loose" or "floppy" jaw is critical when singing high notes. I constantly check and recheck to make sure I haven't rigidified my jaw - this means "unhinging" in front of the ears, to get a sense of even wider extension of the mouth (up and down), and also allowing for a smooth, easy movement of the lower jaw from side to side.

Keeping the "cheeks up" is also essential - that, combined with the unhinged jaw, is what raises the soft palate. I guess it's that "yawny" feeling I'm going for - that feeling that if I wanted to, I could make myself yawn, but instead I sing.

The other thing is not to worry about how loud the note is. It's taken me a long time to discover this delicate balance, because when I used to produce high notes wrong, they sounded very loud in my head, but were mainly just harsh and shrill to everyone else, but not particularly loud.

Then I went through a phase of discovering the acoustically correct, correctly produced high note, and for a long time, those notes sounded really *small* in my head, but also very focussed - and, my teacher assured me, they sounded absolutely right to her.

Now I'm discovering I can work with those easy, very focussed high notes and add volume to them by adding compression in the lower abdomen - i.e., increasing volume down there, and not by tensing my jaw or throat, or pulling in on my ribs.

The other thing that has helped all this time is to do a lot of vocalising that involves simply "touching" the highest notes, not sustaining them. The old 1-3-5-3-1 and 1-4-1-4-1 (yodel) have been the most helpful, but also an exercise I got from Placido Domingo's interview in Hines's GREAT SINGERS ON GREAT SINGING: 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2 (breath) 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-9-7-5-4-2-1. This exercise isn't just great for improving flexibility (it's done at warp - i.e., coloratura - speed), but it helps free up the top notes because you're essentially working up a little, then a bit higher, and then higher still, never "hovering" on the high notes, so you don't have any time to change the way you're producing your notes (for the worse) as you get higher.

Which is really the trick. Other than checking that my jaw is really unhinged, I've found the best way to produce my highest notes is to sing them exactly the same way I sing my lower notes. Yes, there may be some vowel distortion when I get higher - that's caused by the wider unhinging of the jaw - but as far as everything else goes, all the breath support, posture, etc. is exactly the same for the A above middle C or the A above that one. Maintaining this consistency is a hard thing to master, but I find when I *do* it, the high notes just come, and I don't have to obsess over them.

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